By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

The director who has led the Montclair Public Library since 2017 will next head up the Sacramento Public Library, a 28-branch operation and California's fourth-largest library system.

Peter Coyl announced his resignation from the two-branch Montclair library late last month. It's effective Friday, Dec. 10, and he begins the new role as CEO and director in Sacramento Jan. 3.

He'll be transitioning to a state capital with roughly 13 times the population of Montclair. It's also where, according to a press release from the Sacramento library system, Coyl received his own first library card at the age of 5.

"With over 20 years of experience in libraries, he brings a diverse knowledge base in all aspects of library service ranging from circulation clerk and bookmobile driver at Rochester Hills Public Library, librarian at a K-2 international school in Taiwan and branch manager and district manager at Dallas Public Library," the Sacramento system said in its release.

Ongoing struggle with township

Coyl's departure comes at a tense time for the Montclair library and its leadership, as a political battle continues to play out over the library's finances — one that could see library trustees lose some of the autonomy they've long valued.

The township this year authorized a $31,500 forensic audit in which consultants say they found half a million dollars of overstated expenses and other issues. Library officials counter-argue that those findings are wrong in several places and were based on a draft budget.

The audit itself has been a point of contention — including at a November demonstration outside the main library branch, where residents demanded to know what prompted it. Mayor Sean Spiller said at a recent Township Council meeting the audit was spurred both by the closure of the library's Bellevue Avenue branch early in the coronavirus pandemic (a closure that lasted until earlier this year, when the council agreed to boost its planned budget for the library by $100,000 in exchange for a reopening), and because the library couldn’t show it had saved money with furloughs. Library officials, again, dispute those findings and assertions.

The Township Council's finance committee and the township's administration have proposed an agreement that would make any funding for the library beyond that required by state law contingent on a number of conditions — 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 be run by the township manager. State law puts those sorts of decisions in the hands of library trustees — implemented by the director and staff — but township financial consultant Bob Benecke has argued the municipality can set terms for funding it controls.

For 2022, state law requires the library receive a base of $2.8 million. But the library typically asks the township for several hundreds of thousands of dollars beyond that; Coyl has said for the coming year, library leaders are asking for a total of about $3.2 million in all.

The Township Council held off on any action on the agreement at its Nov. 15 meeting, but the matter still hasn't come to any resolution. Some members of the council had objected to the proposed agreement both in principle and tone.

Some also objected to learning the township hadn't made some anticipated payments to the library for the third and fourth quarter expected under this year's budget. At the Nov. 15 meeting, Councilwoman Lori Price Abrams asked if it was a tactic to get the library leadership's attention, and Councilman Bob Russo asked directly: "Where is the money?"

Spiller, a member of the township's finance committee, had said that there was a miscommunication with the township's chief financial officer, Padmaja Rao, and that she'd been meant to release the funds after the receipt of financial documents Coyl told Montclair Local were received weeks earlier. But Councilman Peter Yacobellis on Tuesday, Dec. 7, cited a memo from Rao flatly disputing that: "Her words are, specifically in quote, 'Decision to initiate a forensic audit and decision to withhold funding are made by the finance committee. There is no miscommunication or misunderstanding on my part. The instructions were clear: Do not pay until the agreement is signed.'"

Yacobellis said the issue wasn't going away yet "because the truth is still not being told."

Coyl told Montclair Local last month the dispute with township officials didn't prompt his departure.

Coyl's next chapter

In the announcement from the Sacramento library system, Coyl said he was excited for the new role.

"I am excited join the Sacramento Public Library and help lead it into its next chapter,” he said. “It is an honor to be asked to continue the great work that has been done by the staff and board to make [the Sacramento Public Library] a destination for learning in the community. SPL is well deserving of its great reputation and I look forward to building on that.”

The announcement, in addition to describing the Montclair system as one of the "busiest" public libraries in New Jersey, also noted Coyl is vice president of the Freedom to Read Foundation, serves on the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee and recently was a member of Public Library Association’s Task Force on Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Social Justice.

“Peter brings a broad range of experience and we are confident that under his leadership the [Sacramento] library will continue its focus on serving the needs of our community. We’re thrilled to welcome him back to where his passion for libraries began as a child,” Sacramento Public Library Authority Board Chair and Sacramento Council member Eric Guerra said in the announcement.

“Throughout his career, Peter has worked to remove barriers to library access, from eliminating overdue fines and developing life skills programs to support refugee communities and keeping seniors connected with Wi-Fi hot spots during the pandemic.”

During Coyl’s time as director, the Montclair 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 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.

In their own announcement of Coyl’s departure last month, the Montclair 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.”

Clifford Kulwin, a former Montclair library trustee who chaired the search committee that brought Coyl to the township in 2016, said the trust the large Sacramento system is placing in him "confirms the enthusiasm we felt for Peter" in 2017. And he criticized the audit and steps by township officials for "concerns — indirect and, again, unsubstantiated and vague — about Peter's leadership."

"Details and explanations have been staggeringly absent," Kulwin said. "These concerns were absurd when first voiced. They are even more absurd now that one of the most prominent libraries in the country has chosen Peter as its new leader.

"Perhaps those behind this effort will finally now realize how ludicrous it is — or if they truly believe substance is on their side, will share it with us. Trite but true, Montclair's loss is Sacramento's gain. Hopefully, we can soon hire someone here worthy of being his successor."

Montclair's trustees said recently they'd name an interim director while initiating a nationwide search for his replacement.

— Includes previous reporting by Jaimie Julia Winters