By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

Montclair Public Library officials say township officials are still “overreaching” in the latest version of a proposed agreement that could give the municipal administration more control of the library, effectively shifting some authority from its board of trustees.

They say controversial terms that would have given the township manager more say over hours and programs haven’t changed much since a first draft drew protests from library supporters and some members of the council. And some council members say they were caught off guard, finding out a new draft plan was sent to library leaders before they could weigh in.

The full council received the latest draft Dec. 7, the day of its  most recent conference meeting; library leaders were sent the draft the day before. Councilman Bob Russo, at that meeting, questioned why township financial adviser Bob Benecke — who has been working on the plan with the subset of council members on the governing body’s finance committee as well as the township’s administration — would have the authority to write and send an agreement to the library before seeking input from elected officials. 

“He doesn't run the town. He wasn’t elected by anyone,” Russo said.

The agreement has been proposed as a way to get more oversight over library finances and offerings after a $31,000 forensic audit found “areas in need of improvement,” but critics see it as a power grab by the municipal administration and finance committee. And Russo asked why the agreement was even necessary at all: “I have never seen anything like this in my 24 years,” he said.

Additionally, township financial adviser Padmaja Rao, in a memo to council members, flatly contradicted an assertion by Mayor Sean Spiller at a Nov. 15 meeting that some funds were held back from the library due to a miscommunication with her — a matter Councilwoman Lori Price Abrams questioned at that November session, asking if it had been “a tactic to get [the library leaders’] attention?” At the time, the library was still due $245,638 of the $3.1 million it is set to receive for 2021.

“There is no miscommunication or misunderstanding on my part. The instructions were clear: Do not pay until the agreement is signed,” Rao wrote in a portion of the memo Councilman Peter Yacobellis read at the Dec. 7 meeting.

Outgoing library Director Peter Coyl — whose last day was Dec. 10, as he’s headed for a new role leading the Sacramento Public Library — has said the Montclair library received the owed funds the day after the November meeting but is still owed $31,929 from 2020. Questions to Rao have gone unanswered. 

Both Yacobellis and Russo took note of the memo at the Dec. 7 meeting. It provides Rao’s chronology of interactions with the library and the audit, which described more than half a million dollars in overstated expenses. Library officials dispute many of the findings. 

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Not much change

The township’s administration and members of the finance committee have sought to make discretionary funding for the library contingent on its leadership's signing off on the agreement. Under state law, the municipality must provide a certain base of funding to the library — under a standard known as the “third of a mil” formula — but anything above that is at the council’s discretion. In 2021, a little under $2.68 million is required by the formula; another approximately $420,000 was awarded by the council.

The council postponed planned action on the earlier draft at the Nov. 15 meeting, to get more input from the governing body’s own members and the library.

The library’s leaders were surprised by an email and new draft agreement from the finance committee, Coyl said Wednesday, Dec. 8, the day following the council’s most recent meeting. 

“It was our understanding that we were to have additional conversations before a new agreement was drafted and sent to us,” he said.

Library officials had sent their own proposed revisions to the township on Nov. 10, but Coyl said many of those changes were never made — in particular regarding requirements that changes to hours, programs or staffing be presented to the township manager, and that no significant changes to hours or closures be made without prior township approval.  

“Some things were addressed. But some things as proposed are still overreaching and take authority away from the [library] board,” Coyl said.

He noted state law establishes a library’s board of trustees as the institution’s governing body. The board decides how it will use its buildings, sets its hours of operation and personnel policies, and prepares and controls its budget. Coyl has said the board can’t legally turn over its power to the township. But Benecke has argued the council can set conditions on funding it controls. 

Coyl also had concerns with what he called overly broad language. The agreement would have required the library to provide “equal access to free public library services to all residents of the service areas” of both the library’s main branch and its Bellevue Avenue branch, which was shuttered early in the pandemic and reopened this year after the council agreed to boost its 2021 funding by $100,000 in exchange for the reopening. But Coyl has said the  Bellevue branch is not accessible under Americans With Disabilities Act requirements, so programs there could not provide equal access to residents of varying abilities.

The view of the entrance and greeter's desk from the balcony on the second floor on the main branch of the Montclair Public Library. (ADAM ANIK / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
The view of the entrance and greeter's desk from the balcony on the second floor on the main branch of the Montclair Public Library. (ADAM ANIK / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
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More council members want input

At the close of the Tuesday, Dec. 7, council meeting, Price Abrams — who had called the first draft  “offensive and disrespectful” — questioned why the library had received the new draft before the council’s own services committee had a chance to review it. Because the library is a “flagship” municipal service, it should have had the review of both the council’s finance committee and the services committee, she said.

“There were four members [Peter Yacobellis, Robin Schlager, Bob Russo and Price Abrams] of this governing body that wanted to be included in this process. It was out of order that it went to the library before we had a chance to give input,” Price Abrams said.

Russo said the finance committee shouldn’t be the only committee with a say in the matter, and that how the township spends the money shouldn’t be the only criterion in play.

“I saw what was written and I don’t think it’s much different than what was written before. It has some problem parts. [There’s] a phrase that says even if they did what we want, we could still cut them,” Russo said.

Yacobellis said the library's receiving the document before the council could review it could signal that the draft had full council approval.

“Why, when we know that this is a contentious issue, would the township send a revised agreement to the library when a majority of the council does not support that? It doesn’t make any sense,” he said. 

But Councilman David Cummings, who serves on the finance committee, said that the committee and the manager were not keeping anyone out of the loop. He recalled that the council had agreed that everyone would get a copy of the revisions before a scheduled Dec. 14 meeting of town management, council members and library representatives on the issue. 

“We made it clear that everyone was going to get a copy of Mr. Benecke’s revised document and have a chance to look at it. I don’t see anything that changed except that Mr. Coyl received it before [the] council. So if anybody has a problem with that, it's a problem you are going to have to have,” he said. “Bottom line is that everyone has the document and can review it before the meeting.”

Schlager suggested that the council take the discussion offline and that the draft should be looked at as a “working document.”

Montclair Local’s request for the document is under review by the assistant township attorney.

For 2022, the statutory amount the library will receive has risen to about $2.8 million, but a budget presented to the town manager in November also requests $385,792 in discretionary aid, Coyl has told Montclair Local. That would make for a total of slightly under $3.2 million, compared to the $3.1 million approved for 2021.