Why is the Montclair council trying to usurp control of the library? (Town Square)
By CLIFFORD KULWIN
Special to Montclair Local
The following is an abridged version of a letter the author wrote to Montclair’s mayor and Township Council.
I write to share concerns about the Montclair Public Library resulting from the decision to conduct a forensic audit. I served as a Montclair Public Library trustee from 2003 to 2018, five of those years as president, and in an earlier period as treasurer. I am familiar with the inner workings of the library and am thus all the more incredulous about what I have heard.
Why a forensic audit? An actual reason has yet to be provided. Presumably, the audit — which cost more than $30,000 — was prompted by specific concerns that had arisen. The library’s mandated annual audit is performed by a CPA who is also a registered municipal accountant. What did the regular audit miss that warranted a forensic audit? Should this not be public information?
Personally, I am dubious as to the need for the forensic audit. Library finances are and always have been strictly controlled and monitored. Googling “forensic audit” leads to a consistent answer: A forensic audit, as accounting firm Eide Bailly describes on its site, is an “examination of financial records to find any illegal financial activity.” I cannot imagine what kind of malfeasance was thought might have taken place.
Who are the forensic auditors to say how much the township should give the library? The auditors’ formal report recommends the township make the annual allocation only what the state mandated minimum requires. How is this part of an auditor’s job?
The library’s allocation begins with what the trustees believe the library needs to serve the township appropriately. That then becomes the basis for their budget presentation to the Township Council, which in turn decides the actual amount of the allocation.
The auditors, in effect, are arguing that the minimum mandated amount is sufficient for Montclair to have the library it needs. Who are they to make this call? The lead auditor’s CV — included in the report — shows no expertise in library services. I find this assertion breathtakingly arrogant.
Library funding has long been well above the required minimum; an average of $1.2 million over the last 22 years. I cannot imagine Montclair residents satisfied with library services provided by only the mandated minimum acceptable. Significantly, nowhere does the report state why the auditors make this recommendation.
Why did you usurp library trustees’ authority? The 2008 stock market crash created tremendous financial challenges. We trustees made the very difficult decision to suspend Bellevue Avenue branch operations temporarily. We carefully analyzed what actions, with the funds available, would keep the overall level of service as high as possible. A sad decision, but the right one.
No doubt, a similar process led to the current trustees’ own decision to suspend operations on Bellevue Avenue. Township Council members disagreed, to the extent they insisted Bellevue Avenue reopen before releasing previously allocated funds, literally and openly holding the library hostage. Why? I can only imagine perceived constituent desires as opposed to a serious analysis of what best serves the entire town.
Do you dispute counter-charges in the board’s Nov. 10 memo to you? The memo addresses several of the forensic audit’s points, including: the auditors’ use of a draft fiscal year 2021 budget instead of the final budget; the auditors’ charge, as quoted in the memo, that the library “did not respond in a timely manner to furlough and lay off employees during the closure early in  due to the pandemic” (untrue); the charge that the library did not apply for the American Library Association’s COVID Library Relief Fund (it did); and the charge that the regular 2020 audit was not available (it was).
Unless you can refute the points made in the trustees’ memo, it appears the forensic audit’s conclusions are on shaky ground.
Why does the Township Council feel it must take control of the library, as its proposed funding agreement would effectively do? The draft agreement bases the justification for the takeover first on the assertion “neither plans for the [library’s] closing and re-opening having been provided in advance to the township and thus neither being approved by the township.” (N.B. library trustees are legally responsible for deciding whether to open or close the library.)
It also notes that the forensic audit recommends the library allocation be limited to the state minimum, adding “the forensic audit brought to the attention of the governing body other concerns” without stating what those concerns are.
No other reasons are given.
I do not understand why the forensic audit was done, why it included areas beyond the generally accepted purview of what constitutes a forensic audit, and how all this prompted council members to find library trustees so incompetent that they had no choice but to assume responsibility for directing library finances, a state of affairs found nowhere else in New Jersey.
I see two possible explanations. First, there are good reasons for all of this that have not been made public. If so, these are things we deserve to know.
Second, and for what reasons I cannot imagine, one or more council members want the council to take control of the library, instead of continuing to entrust its care, as has successfully long been the case, to the board of trustees legally empowered with responsibility for it.
Montclair has an outstanding library. Pre-pandemic, it welcomed more than 400,000 annual individual physical visits; physical and virtual circulation exceeded 1 million items. Especially for the economically challenged, the value and importance of library resources cannot be overstated. During the pandemic, library staff has worked heroically to serve all Montclair residents; those efforts made these difficult times better for countless individuals.
Thank you for your consideration. I hope the Montclair Public Library Trustees’ Nov. 10 memo, and my own words, are carefully read and this matter closely reexamined.
Clifford Kulwin is a Montclair resident, rabbi emeritus of Temple B’nai Abraham and a former trustee of the Montclair Public Library.
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