There’s nothing like talk of an imminent crisis to pack in the public. Through social media and by word of mouth, Pelham Public Library supporters urged concerned residents to attend last Wednesday’s regularly scheduled Library Board meeting, a recruitment effort that was, by any measure, hugely successful.
The Festival Room at the library’s Fonthill branch was filled to capacity by 6 PM, with spillover into the lobby, as the Library Board and Mayor Marvin Junkin prepared to spar over issues of library leadership and finances.
“I’ve been a board member for a year now,” said Nicole Nolan, newly appointed board Chair, in her opening remarks, “and I’ve never seen a [single] guest at one of our meetings. So this is phenomenal.”
As matches go, this was a reasonably tame affair, and the gloves never really came off. Both sides landed a few jabs, but the footwork was often awkward and there was no knockout punch.
In early December, Town Council “instructed” the Library Board to defer hiring a new chief executive officer, and instead appoint Vickie vanRavenswaay, Director of Recreation, Culture, and Wellness, as acting CEO on a six-month interim basis.
“We do not accept the instructions in the resolution of December 2nd, 2019,” said Nolan.
Under the Ontario Public Libraries Act, library boards operate as independent entities, which hire their own staff and CEO, and do not report to the municipality, despite receiving the lion’s share of their funding from municipal coffers.
Mayor Junkin told the audience that he and past board Chair Tim Wright met in mid December, following reporting in the Voice about council’s request, and had a “great meeting,” during which Junkin agreed to speak directly to the entire board. With his customary bluntness, Junkin offered his side of the argument.
“Excuse my language, but there’s no bullshit. What you hear from me tonight is the straight-up truth, no hidden agenda. What we are proposing is going to put more money for resources in this library. When I ran for mayor, at no time did I mention the library. I don’t know who’s on the board now. I probably should, but I don’t. When I got elected as mayor, my biggest mistake was that I did not reach out to the library board and open a channel of communication.”
Junkin recalled that 2018’s wholesale turnover of council was based primarily on voters’ reaction to the Town’s dire financial situation.
“This town council got elected based on financial austerity. We needed to fix the financial mess that this town is in. [In early 2019] we spent 12 hours as a council, going through the budget line by line. At the end of it, we had made $235,000 in cuts and one of them was $40,000 from the library.”
It was during these 2019 and 2020 budget processes, Junkin said, that council scrutinized the library CEO position, which had remained unfilled since the previous CEO’s departure in October 2018. The previous CEO earned about $120,000, including the value of benefits.
Using a brief PowerPoint presentation, Junkin contrasted the library’s management structure to those of various Town departments.
“Our Public Works Director oversees 25 full-time and 12 seasonal staff, and a budget of about $21 million. His salary is $125,000. Our Recreation Director has 58 employees and a $3.3 million budget, and makes $124,000. Compare them to the library CEO, with a budget of $1 million, four full-time employees and 12 part timers…This is what council cannot get our heads around…a million dollar budget and $200,000 was going to two people at the top,” referring to both the library CEO and Deputy CEO.
Junkin asserted that council wanted to work more closely with the Library Board, but conceded that there would be a learning curve for a non-specialist CEO.
“Does [vanRavenswaay] know anything about running the library? No, she does not. And that is why we would have [Deputy/Acting CEO and Chief Librarian Amy Guilmette] continue on in her job to run the day-to-day operations of the library.”
The Library Board’s choice for the previous CEO, a Region of Niagara administrator, also came into the position without library management experience.
Junkin asserted that council did not want to “take over” the library, noting that the Town recently spent $1.2 million modernizing the library’s Fenwick branch, and that council had approved requesting provincial grants that could see $8 million spent on moving the Fonthill branch next to the community centre.
Junkin compared the cost savings that council achieved with the community centre’s staff reorganization to the potential for similar results at the library.
“We just want to get a bigger bang for our buck…do we really need $200,000 at the top of a $1 million budget? We just think it’s ridiculous. If you want, you can think of us as a bunch of arrogant sons of bitches, but we think we can run this library cheaper and increase the resources to the public.”
After Junkin finished, board members were given the chance to ask him questions. Board Vice-Chair, Donald Brown, who also heads the Finance Committee, was quick to take the Mayor to task.
“Mr. Mayor, the Town grant is not $1 million. The Town grant is maybe $850,000. And then we have other sources, provincial grants, fundraising, rentals. As to the salary of the CEO, has the Town Council looked at the job description of the CEO?”
Junkin conceded that he had not.
“I have not looked at it personally. What I’m still saying is that we’re not building a ship. We’re not going to the moon. We are managing four full-time people, 12 part-time, and two buildings.”
“I have no nice way to say this,” Brown responded, “but I don’t think that Town Council has a good idea of what it takes to operate this library.”
(Asked to comment later, Acting CEO Guilmette responded, “I actually do not know how accurate the statement is. I have never, and would never, have checked in the database on any councillors being cardholders.” See related story: What percentage of Pelham has a library card)
Junkin remained adamant that efficiencies and the extension of library services were front and centre for council, employing a phrase that he often repeated during the course of the meeting.
“We’re not going to burn anybody’s books. We want to give you more services.”
Board member Tim Wright argued that council’s emphasis on manager-to-to-managed ratio was misplaced.
“I find the analysis that you used to be an irrelevant factor. Generically, the job of the CEO is leadership, not supervision. A proper review and analysis needs to be done to determine the appropriate organizational model to administer the library, starting from ground zero, using proper process to come up with a well-documented and well thought-out plan.
Asked if council would be receptive to starting over, Junkin responded with another mea culpa.
“Look, we treated you guys like dirt and I apologize for that. That was awful. There was no excuse for it. But what I would love is to get a partnership going. We have [Information Technology] people. We have a Treasurer, and we do your books already at the Town level. Does it not make sense to continue the merging?”
At this point, the audience’s steadily increasing pushback snapped the patience of Pelham CAO David Cribbs, seated at the rear as an observer.
“This is completely unacceptable,” Cribbs bellowed, startling the room into silence. “Decorum and basic good manners are appropriate at a public meeting.”
Cribbs looked pointedly at the Chair.
“Would you be so kind as to explain the rules?”
Momentarily flustered, Nolan responded that she was still getting a handle on her new responsibilities, but did remind the room that Robert’s Rules of Order prevailed, which, at least temporarily, resulted in a reduction of audience agita.
Board member Gwen MacDougall asserted that if the library no longer functioned under the Libraries Act then there was more at risk than the loss of $40,000 in provincial funds.
“If we are violating the Public Libraries Act,” said MacDougall, “we cannot use services through [the Southern Ontario Library Service], which means that townspeople would no longer have access to the inter-library loan service.”
“Well, I’ll be quite blunt,” responded Junkin. “There is no public library ‘jail.’ So if we don’t operate under the Act, yes, we might lose the $40,000 grant. But I think that the overall savings of what we can achieve would be well-worth operating outside the box of the Libraries Act. Put Vickie [van Ravenswaay] in there, and we’ll meet once a month and see how everything is working. It’s only six months. I’m not asking for a five-year commitment. If it’s not working out, we’ll move ahead to another solution that would be mutually agreed upon by the board and the council.”
Board member Greg Lewis responded that the Board still needed to be consulted.
“You said you treated us like dirt,” said Lewis, “and you wish you could take it back, and you wish you could fix it. There’s an easy fix. Just forget this resolution and let’s do all the teamwork stuff first.”
Junkin said that he would put such a motion forward at council, “as long as I can also say that I looked [you] in the eye and the Library Board is willing to cooperate with council….It’s a council decision. I’m only one vote. But I would definitely see that as a way forward.”
After a short break, the meeting resumed with presentations by three library science professionals who were invited by the board to speak, then field audience questions.
Stephen Abram, the Executive Director of the Federation of Ontario Public Libraries, stressed that a CEO job should never be judged by the number of employees, but by the scope of responsibilities and their impact. He asserted that one dollar in library spending realized a $27 return on social investment in a community. Abram said that libraries were more than books, and were “transformational” in a community. He declared that students who are regular library users score 15-20 points higher than their peers on standardized tests. In Abram’s assessment, the Pelham Public Library is “funded about right” given its catchment area. Based on operational metrics it is “doing well by comparison” with other library systems.
Anne Marie Madziak, of the Southern Ontario Library Service, encouraged the community to “look for synergies, not just savings,” and for council and the Library Board to work to find the “win-win.”
Shelagh Paterson, of the Ontario Libraries Association, noted that a major library conference was slated for the coming week in Toronto, which presented an excellent opportunity for council and Library Board members to investigate cutting-edge offerings in library technology and operation.
As the meeting drew to a close, board members ruminated over whether to hire a consultant to assist in their deliberations. Ultimately, they unanimously passed a motion to work collaboratively with Town Council, and to arrange a meeting including various stakeholders to develop a process to move the discussions forward.
“I think overall the meeting went well,” Junkin told the Voice afterward. “From council’s perspective, we appreciate that the board has agreed to delay hiring a CEO. With that being the case, l’ll recommend to council that we withdraw our request to appoint a staff director as Interim CEO. In the future, I hope we meet regularly to identify areas where overlapping services can be better integrated and improved. I think both sides want to see useful, efficient services offered to Pelham residents. That’s why I was in favour of the $1 million library budget. I can’t believe that members of council are the only residents upset to see any organization spend over $200,000 on two administrators to manage four full-time and 12 part-time staff.”
Town CAO David Cribbs sees reorganization under the Libraries Act as potentially satisfying all parties.
“I think it might be fruitful to look at the ‘union board’ model,” Cribbs said late last week, “which is entrenched in the Ontario Public Libraries Act. A union board is one in which two or more municipalities get together and conjunctively operate an independent library board. Some of Pelham’s neighboring municipalities in Niagara have similar populations and roughly equally-sized library systems. I would think there may well be an opportunity to amalgamate the libraries, akin to what was contemplated with respect to amalgamation for the Niagara municipalities themselves, in an effort to see if we couldn’t spread the costs of library readership over a larger number of actual libraries. If we look next door to Haldimand County, I know they have a CEO who oversees eight library branches, and that seems like a reasonable number to spread the CEO salary amongst. That could be a potential model for us.”
Responding to the notion that council was bent on limiting funds to the library to help offset spending elsewhere, Cribbs said, “I haven’t heard a single elected official from Pelham indicate that they were looking to achieve cost savings out of the library system. All I’ve heard are positive statements looking towards a reinvestment and improvement of service.”
Cribbs added that he does possess a library card.
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