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Witch hunt or bad management? Salt Lake City Public Library

by Jesse Fruhwirth
- Posted // 2011-01-12 -

Just what will happen next is anyone's guess in the story at the Salt Lake City Public Library and the widespread employee unhappiness with the director since 2008, Beth Elder. Here are a few things that seem strange to me in this situation.

If you're just tuning in, read Manager Reshuffling at Salt Lake City Library, published today.

First, though the library board members chosen by the Salt Lake City Mayor's office have deep influence on the direction of the library, none of my sources inside the SLCPL system know the board members. Often managers know the board members names', but several that spoke to me couldn't tell me the board members' reputations nor their allegiances. Many people told me that for literally decades familiarizing oneself with the board members seemed unnecessary because there was such faith in long-time director Nancy Tessman. That makes some sense. On the other hand, many employees and managers say the staff unhappiness began in 2008 when Elder was hired and has only grown since then, so it seems strange to me that people haven't done their homework on who these board members are.

Elder's contract is up for review soon. Only the board can fire her or choose to resign a new contract.

To understand the board's power, listen to the audio of the Dec. 16 board meeting in which the board approves a controversial set of recommendations provided to SLCPL by a consultant. Click the play button at the top of this post.

The so-called Needham report (which you can read at the bottom of this story), named after the consultant who authored it, recommends that library managers not "free lance," or complain to board members or city council members if they feel the library director Elder has gone astray.So maybe that partially explains the ignorance.

The other big strangeness is that I never got a very satisfying or clear answer from library leadership to what I see as the central question of this story. In early 2009, managers took a symbolic vote in which several sources who voted told me they overwhelmingly voted "no confidence" in Elder's leadership. Commenting on that vote, library board president Hugh Gillilan told me the first mediator/facilitator/consultant, Helen Reddick, was hired to try to allay hard feelings. Everyone agrees it didn't work; in fact, that vote of no confidence was taken at a meeting with Reddick. Gillilan told me--and Elder was relayed this version of events and did not make any corrections--that a second contractor, Needham, was then hired, and mediating a better relationship between Elder and staff was only a part of his goals. A larger part of his mission was to assess the system's management structure and make recommendations about how to improve it. After that, the controversial reshuffling occurred and both Elder and Gillilan admit that implementation--at least in the short term--was sure to create more hard feelings in the no-one-likes-change sorta way.

So here's the central question: how did that evolution occur? Why was one consultant hired primarily to smooth things over only to be replaced by a new consultant whose recommendations were sure to rough things up? Did leadership come to believe that the unhappiness was intractable and not able to be relieved? Was there a calculation that the proposed reorganization was more valuable than any individual manager--or group of managers--who might resign or retire in response?

Gillilan was very unspecific in his response to this line of questioning. "You've got to look at the greater good," was one thing he said, continuing that "Unhappiness among some staff can't be the the key ingredient. ... I would hope that every member in the organization is thoroughly satisfied, but that's not realistic." Which, to me, sounds basically like you've gotta break some eggs to make an omelet.

Strangely, Elder, in a separate interview, gave a strikingly different response that seems contradictory, at least to me (you be the judge). She said implementing Needham's report was an effort to address the root causes of the unhappiness among managers and "not treat the symptoms, but let's look deeper." For example, assistant manager positions at branches were eliminated to create full-time, management-level "outcome leads" who focus on implementing broad strategic goals, for example to oversee the system's efforts in terms of technology (see the entire strategic plan at the bottom of the story here). Before the shakeup, it seemed to be everyone and no one's job to implement these strategic goals, Elder told me, leading to manager frustration. So Elder argued that the reorganization--while it will cause anxiety at first--will allay staff unhappiness in the long-term, something Gillilan didn't even get close to mentioning.

So, which is it? The two most powerful people in the system gave what seem to me to be very different responses. How do you, dear reader, interpret these comments?

Underscoring this strangeness, while Gillilan and Elder dither other what portion of employees are unhappy--it's my judgment that a critical mass, at least, is very unhappy--they've made no efforts to measure this unhappiness. No polls. No employee round tables. No "evening with the director" events. And certainly not an open-door policy in which employees can direct complaints or concerns to any person in leadership of the organization (a human resources policy I've had in most employee handbooks at most of my employers that, I thought, was really standard-issue HR stuff). Indeed, Needham recommended and the board approved a one-way complaint system: Employees complain to their own managers, managers complain only to Elder--no one but Elder communicates with the Board.

I asked Gillilan: If you did a poll of current managers--which you haven't done--and again found that "no confidence" in Elder is nearly a unanimous sentiment, would you care? Would you do anything in particular? Would you change directions? "Obviously we would be concerned," he said. "But we'd want to ferret out the reasons. ... To vote 'no confidence' is a heavy brush to throw around. What does it really mean? Why? As a board member, I would want to have more indications as to specifics that justified such criteria."

That leads back to complaints from Gillilan and Elder that those who are complaining are doing so only anonymously--with the exception of retired and former employees, as well as the Library Employees Organization, or LEO, president. That then circles back to the widespread employee and management complaint that they fear retaliation. How that will be resolved--if it will be--is a mystery.

Salt Lake City Councilman Soren Simonsen's wife, Heather Simonsen, who resigned recently after having a baby, defends Elder. She calls the unhappiness and anonymous complaints a "witch hunt."

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REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // January 13,2011 at 19:15

If you are concerned for the library, please plan on attending the upcoming board meeting. Below is the agenda:

SALT LAKE CITY PUBLIC LIBRARY
BOARD OF DIRECTORS
BOARD MEETING
Thursday, January 20, 2011
3:30 p.m.
Anderson-Foothill Library
1135 South 2100 East
801-594-8611

MEETING AGENDA

I. CALL TO ORDER
II. APPROVAL OF MINUTES
III. COMMUNICATIONS AND PUBLIC COMMENT
IV. BOARD PRESIDENT’S REPORT
V. LIBRARY DIRECTOR’S REPORT
A) Management Reorganization Update
VI. BUILDINGS AND GROUNDS REPORT
A) New Branch Building Project Update
VII. FINANCE REPORT
A) Review Financial Statements and Monthly Invoices for
Payment
VIII. OPERATIONS REPORT
A) Review Personnel Changes
IX. OLD BUSINESS
X. NEW BUSINESS
XI. OTHER
XII. ADJOURN
XIII. UPCOMING SCHEDULE: Regular Board Meeting
Thursday, February 17, 2011
3:30 p.m., Sprague Branch Library

 

 
 
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