Kennett Public Library officials address behind-the-scenes turmoil
By Richard Gaw
On May 5, the embattled Kennett Public Library Board—or what remains of it after three members resigned together in a protest—held a special public forum to quell the controversy surrounding the exit of those members, to answer lingering questions about the recent library name change, and to address the long-term plans to move the library to the Waywood Road site in Kennett Township.
While the long-term vision is to build a larger, modern facility, before that can happen the library board must rebuild a lot of strained relationships with the community that it serves.
The public forum, the fourth public such meeting the board has held in the last three months, was part of that effort. Library board president Susan Mackey-Kallis and vice president Geoff Birkett took the lead in talking on behalf of the board. Birkett said that one of the purposes of the meeting, from his view, was to dispel some of the myths and misconceptions that exist about the library or the board itself. The first misconception, he said, was that the library is a "borough library" that belongs in Kennett Square Borough.
Throughout the meeting, Mackey-Kallis and Birkett talked about how the library must serve the residents in all eight municipalities, and make decisions based on what is best for all the stakeholders in the library’s coverage area.
Birkett said that other prevailing misconceptions include the idea that the library board can’t make decisions, that the board doesn’t want help from the community, and that the board members won’t listen to the opinions of others.
The president and vice president both said that they very much want input from all the library’s stakeholders, including residents.
"We are dedicated to conversions like this," said Mackey-Kallis. "We are always about transparency."
The recent resignations of Jerry Brown, Carol Starzmann, and James Nelson came with accusations that there was not just disharmony, but complete dysfunction on the board. There were even accusations that some of the board members were being bullied and harassed, particularly former library board president Barbara Cairns, who resigned after what Brown, Starzmann, and Nelson referred to as, "an inquisition."
The board members who resigned wrote: "Forced to resign after threat of removal…Barbara faced an intensely brutal and humiliating inquisition by those who have accused her of malfeasance and placed blame on her for recent actions of the entire board."
Birkett denied these allegations, saying that from his perspective there were just lively discussions between people who are passionate about their views. He emphatically denied that any of the board members who resigned were forced to do so.
"They did not like how the board operates, and they chose to resign. They were not forced to resign," Birkett said, adding that the members resigned via Facebook, which he found to be highly unusual.
According to the resignation letter, several board members blamed Cairns for not informing Kennett Square Borough officials about the library’s name change in advance, which resulted in council member Lynn Sinclair supporting a petition to oppose the name change.
"It is our belief that the board failed to do its due diligence in engaging the community in a dialogue before the vote was taken," Nelson, Brown, and Starzmann wrote.
Another point of contention among the board members was the choice of the architect to oversee designs for the new library that is being planned. In the resignation letter, Nelson, Brown, and Starzmann wrote that in 2011 the board conducted an extensive search to identify an architect for the new building. The New Building Committee ultimately selected Lukmire Associates, an award-winning firm that has designed 28 libraries. Lukmire Associates brought a respected Kennett Square architect on board to be a part of the team for the project. The library board entered negotiations with the firm on a contract in December of 2012, but the negotiations were delayed when several potential sites for the library became unavailable.
Now, some library board members want to find a new architect for the project. In the resignation letter, Nelson, Brown, and Starzmann wrote: "These new board members assert local donors will not give money for a new facility developed by a non-local architect, despite the opinions of several local experts in fund-raising that donors will support a beautiful, functional and environmentally sustainable facility that meets the needs of the community, regardless of who designs it."
The library board voted to remain with Lukmire Associates, but only after a difficult debate that apparently widened the rift between board members.
Additionally, Nelson, Brown, and Starzmann wrote in the letter that Cairns was faulted for a decision that the entire board made several years ago to fund the adult literacy program after state funding for it was eliminated. The library can’t fund the program without dipping into its savings each year.
Mackey-Kallis said that the recent resignations came about because the individuals who resigned—one of whom had never attended a board meeting in person—didn’t like some of the decisions that the board was making. The spate of resignations in early 2014 came about because those members didn’t think the board was moving fast enough on some issues.
Still, the latest resignations certainly perpetuate the perception that the library board is an incongruous group that can’t get out of its own way. There has long been a disconnect between the library board and Kennett Square Borough Council, and the failure to notify all the municipal leaders about the pending name change of the library was just the latest example of public relations failures.
The library board also failed to rally the support necessary to win a 2014 referendum on whether New Garden Township would establish a dedicated library tax that would ensure that the municipality was providing its fair share of funding to the library. Voters rejected the referendum by a slim margin.
Earlier this year, the library officially changed its name from Bayard Taylor Memorial Library to the Kennett Public Library. The new name was selected for its simplicity: "Kennett" places it in the Kennett area; "Public" identifies it as a public library, and not one connected to a school or private organization; and "Library" describes its function. The name change was backed by the library staff members, who were constantly being asked if the Bayard Taylor Memorial Library was, in fact, in Kennett Square.
"There was a lot of confusion [about the previous name] from a lot of people," explained Mackey-Kallis.
Yet, the new name is unpopular among some people in the community, especially those who see the renaming as a way to sever the historical connection with Bayard Taylor, one of Kennett Square’s most prominent citizens.
When the name change was announced, the library board made a point to emphasize that a Bayard Taylor Reading Room would be included in the plans for any new facility.
"We are absolutely not moving away from that heritage," said Birkett.
"We’re very dedicated to preserving the Bayard Taylor legacy," added Mackey-Kallis.
The board members admitted that communication regarding the name change was lacking—especially as they failed to directly notify all the elected officials of the municipalities about the change in advance of making the announcement.
Collis Townsend, a former library board president, took the current board to task about the name change.
"I think it was a terrible, unintentional mistake," he said, explaining that inserting the word "public" in the name was misleading because the library is run by a private—not a public—board.
Library director Donna Murray objected to Townsend’s point. She said that many public libraries in Pennsylvania function the exact same way and are considered public libraries.
"We are a public library—we serve the public," Murray said.
While it’s unlikely that any name change would garner full support of the community, the outcry against this name change serves to increase the perception that the library board can’t get the community to rally behind it instead of rallying against it.
Nelson, Brown, and Starzmann concluded their resignation letter with the following: "We think it is time for a completely new library board with people of the highest integrity and a real dedication to libraries who can work collaboratively and collegially to focus on building the best library and services that taxpayers deserve. While there are several on the board who have demonstrated their dedication to the library and who have strong principles, the members who attacked long-standing board members and their decisions and actions have done little to engage in effective, constructive dialogue or to work toward consensus. We think there is a real lack of moral leadership on this board. The communities whose constituents support the library deserve better from the board members who serve and govern."
Birkett admitted that both he and Mackey-Kallis thought out resigning, but they decided it was better to stay on and try to be part of the solution.
"We’re many things," Birkett said, "but we’re not perfect. We’re running the board like a professional board. We are here to look after the taxpayers’ money. We’re doing it because we love the library. There’s no other agenda. We’ll be influenced by what the public tells us. Our agenda is to have the best library possible…but we’re not going to spend another ten years doing nothing."
Mackey-Kallis agreed. "The only agenda that this board has is to serve our customers and build the best library we can," she said, adding that the board is committed to total transparency, balanced budgeting, and positive momentum.
The library board is planning a feasibility study in the near future. They want to reach out to key people in the community and evaluate the level of support that is out there for the kind of capital campaign drive that will be necessary to build a new library.
The board members pointed to the recent $80,000 in renovations that were necessary for the community to continue to use it for the next four or five years as an illustration of the need for a new library. The costs for the renovation increased because asbestos needed to be removed.
"We would like to stop patching up this building," Mackey-Kallis said.
The perception of the board being dysfunctional hurts the effort to attract new board members, but more importantly it hurts the long-term effort to build a new library.
"It’s going to take us a while to change the perception," Birkett said. "As a board, moving forward, we’re going to work as a team. It’s been a time of change, a time of frustration, and we hope that we’re moving in the right direction."
To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email email@example.com.