By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
Montclair Public Library director Peter Coyl is leaving his post to take a position at another library — moving on amid negotiations with the Montclair Township Council over the library’s next budget and a contentious proposal that could see the township administration assert more control over library operations.
But Coyl said the library leadership’s relationship with the Township Council, or the possibility of losing some autonomy, weren’t factors in his decision to leave.
Montclair Local had reported early this year Coyl was a contender for a library director post in Ohio, though Coyl confirmed he’s not leaving for that post. He said he’ll announce his next role shortly.
And Coyl said he’s hopeful the library’s budget proposal for the coming year will let trustees and his eventual successor restore services to pre-pandemic levels — even though the funding request remains hundreds of thousands of dollars below the budgets the library saw before 2020’s coronavirus shutdowns.
“Our budget is based on the realities — the town has not collected as much revenue,” Coyl said. The library will draw heavily on gifts from other sources to continue funding programs such as its adult school, he said.
“We will be using every dollar that we have in that account [from gifted funds] to ensure it remains solvent next year,” Coyl said — adding the adult school would need stepped-up funding from the township after 2022 to run the program into the future.
Coyl’s resignation is effective Dec. 10. An announcement from the library’s trustees said they’ll name an interim director while initiating a nationwide search for his replacement.
The announcement made no mention of the sometimes-strained relationship between the library and township leadership — focusing instead of Coyl’s achievements during his tenure, which began in March of 2016. Coyl had been the library’s 16th director in its 128-year history.
In the announcement, Coyl described his time as rewarding, saying it had been “an honor and a privilege to lead an extremely professional, dedicated, and resilient staff in a town whose residents love and support their library.”
It also included praise from JoAnn McCullough, president of the library’s board of trustees.
“Organizing and taking on the difficult task of incorporating policies and procedures is but a few of the many gifts that Peter will leave with us,” she said. “His leadership and patience as a teacher will continue to serve the [Montclair Public Library] as he begins the next chapter of his professional career.”
The announcement noted that during Coyl’s time as director, the library received two programming grants from the American Library Association, was a Public Library Association Grow With Google awardee and was an Inclusive Internship Initiative host site. The library received a multicultural programming award from the New Jersey State Library and an inaugural 2021 Wi-Fi at Work Award by WifiForward, the announcement said.
The library also started a mobile library service, celebrated its 125th birthday, restored a deed from the township’s first non-Indigenous resident, expanded a partnership for Succeed2gether’s Literary Festival, worked with Toni’s Kitchen to provide free summer lunches to children, and began a social work program, hosting an intern through Montclair State University’s Department of Social Work and Child Advocacy.
Coyl headed the library through major cuts made in the coronavirus pandemic. In 2020, township officials initially expected to provide the library with about $3.5 million — a little over $2.6 million of which was required through a state formula, and the rest at local officials’ discretion. Once the pandemic hit, they cut that back to a total of $2,983,990 — a level the library hadn’t seen dip as low in about two decades.
The library furloughed employees for 27 weeks and ultimately let several part-time staffers go. It also kept its Bellevue Avenue branch closed after the library’s main branch returned with limited services in fall of 2020.
Montclair Township Council members initially proposed a total 2021 budget for the library virtually even with the cut-back 2020 plan (even as the state-required portion increased). They later agreed to throw in another $100,000, contingent on the Bellevue branch’s reopening.
And now, library officials and the township administration are engaged in a dispute over the findings of a $31,500 forensic audit in which consultants say the found half a million dollars of overstated expenses and other issues. Library officials have said the findings are wrong in several places, and were based on a draft budget.
The audit itself drew protests — including a recent demonstration outside the main library branch — from residents who wanted to know what prompted it. Mayor Sean Spiller said at a recent township council meeting the audit was spurred both by the Bellevue closure and because the library couldn’t show it had saved money with the furloughs (though a June 2020 message from Coyl to Township Manager Timothy Stafford had been specific that the library saw only minimal cost savings in April of that year because of the timing of paychecks, and was seeing about $5,665 savings per pay period afterward).
And now township officials are considering the terms of a proposal that could give the township administration more oversight over the library.
While some of the library’s municipal funding is required by the state, the remainder is at the township council’s discretion. A proposed agreement discussed at a Township Council meeting earlier this month would have made that discretionary funding contingent on several requirements — for instance, that the library agree to provide “equal access to free public library services to all residents of the service areas of both library branches,” and that changes to hours, programs or staffing by run by the township manager. Decisions about programs and hours fall to the library’s trustees, but township financial consultant Bob Benecke argued the municipality can set terms for funding it controls.
The agreement would have also set terms for reporting financial information to the township administration, and for the library’s budgeting process itself — for instance, requiring that anticipated revenues not exceed the amount received in a prior year.
The Township Council held off on any action on the agreement at its Nov. 15 meeting, with some members objecting to the terms and the agreement’s language (Councilwoman Lori Price Abrams called it “offensive, disrespectful and belligerent”). It remains to be seen what terms might be set in an updated version.
In their announcement of Coyl’s departure, the trustees credited him with working “tirelessly with the staff to continue providing programs and services safely to the residents of Montclair under extreme financial constraints for the past 18 months during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Coyl serves as vice president of the Freedom to Read Foundation, sits on the American Library Association governing body ALA Council and on its Intellectual Freedom Committee, the announcement notes. He also helped develop and implement the Bergen County Cooperative Library System materials delivery service when the state-run LibraryLinkNJ saw massive backlogs after changing vendors in 2018.
“The board wishes to take this opportunity to thank Peter for his hard work and commitment to building and growing MPL,” the trustees said in their announcement. “Over the last five years Peter’s stewardship has been characterized by innovative ideas and strategic thinking. He showed great strength during the pandemic by maximizing offerings to the public with limited funding. By all measurements MPL has improved on Peter’s watch and the energy and devotion he brought will be difficult to match. We wish Peter the very best in his future endeavors.”