Manager Reshuffling at Salt Lake City Library 

Library War: Shakeup brings to light employees' lengthy dissatisfaction with director.

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In April 2010, some on the 31-member management team of the Salt Lake City Public Library system were itching to impeach their boss, Beth Elder, the system director since 2008. In a private meeting with the mediator hired by the library board, the managers asked for a show of hands to see who supported Elder and who wanted her out. Multiple sources who voted at the meeting, speaking on the condition of anonymity with City Weekly, say the symbolic vote was dramatically lopsided against Elder; one remembered 27 votes of “no confidence.” Relations may be even worse now after a controversial reorganization of the management team went into effect Monday.

The inability of that first mediator, Helen Reddick, to ease tensions ironically led to the controversial reorganization that library board President Hugh Gillilan and Elder say was sure to increase tension, at least at first. “It’s understandable that change in any organization often creates some discomfort,” Gillilan says.

George Needham—a second consultant whose recommendations (see below) were approved by the board for implementation Dec. 16 (click hear to listen to the audio)—recommended changing the bylaws to allow Elder to fire employees without prior board approval, to reshuffle the management team and rewrite job descriptions (which Elder was already proposing) and “open all changed positions for applications by incumbents and other staff.”

The latter recommendation angered many managers who felt they were being asked to reapply for jobs they’d long held. Elder calls that process a “job match” and defends it by saying no one lost their job nor was docked in pay (not even the four managers who chose to step down rather than reapply), and the process opened opportunities and “made people look at what their future might be.” All but nine managers changed locations or duties, four of five branch managers were transferred and four retired.

There can be little doubt the vast majority of employees are unhappy with Elder’s leadership, says Clinton Watson, the president of the Library Employees Organization [LEO]. Watson was re-elected by co-workers to another one-year term in early January and says his comments are on behalf of the employees. “I’ve spoken with over 100 staff members in the last year and pretty much everyone agrees that they don’t see [Elder’s] vision,” says Watson, who is an associate librarian at the Day-Riverside branch.

Watson says that after former director Nancy Tessman left in 2006—after 30 years of service—the mood shifted. Tessman knew everyone’s name, Watson and others say, while Elder is removed and lacks personal relationships, even with some managers. That shift has led some staffers to discuss unionizing, but Watson says that’s not a widespread conversation—yet.

“For the last 40 years, the balance between staff and administration felt like there was a compromise on both sides,” he says. “The library hasn’t needed to [unionize] because we had a better structure. Should the response to this be that the administration really clamps down on staff and really tries to take away rights, maybe we’ll talk about it, but at this point, we’re not trying to unionize.”

Employees fear retaliation for speaking out, Watson says. Critical anonymous e-mails addressed to the entire staff and negative comments on the Internet have been common throughout the last year, especially lately. Board president Gillilan says fear of retaliation is a “bogus” excuse for the firestorm of anonymous criticism. “I don’t deny that people fear there could be retaliation, but at the same time, No. 1, I’m not aware of there being any retaliation or that there would be … [and 2,] reasonable procedures are there for people to [complain] in an accountable way.”

Read More: Witch Hunt or Bad Management at Salt Lake City Public Library

Many employees, however, say the 2009 firing of former assistant director Britton Lund, now director of the Washington County Library System, is evidence that questioning Elder can lead to unemployment. Lund had been interim director for 10 months after Tessman retired and also sought the director position Elder now holds. “I was fired. I did not want to leave that award-winning staff,” is all Lund would say, citing a confidentiality agreement. The system won 2006 Library of the Year from Library Journal.

As for the library system’s internal grievance process—which no one has used recently and cannot be used anonymously—all roads lead to Elder. Employees are to complain to their managers, Gillilan says. Needham wrote that managers should not complain to anyone aside from Elder. “Managers do not freelance. They do not go to the board or to individual trustees or to City Council when they don’t like a policy or a procedure.”

Ranae Pierce, the 1996 president of the Utah Library Association and former branch manager of Sprague Library who retired in 2007, said she has spoken to more than two dozen people who thanked her for criticizing Elder’s leadership in an open letter sent to the staff in December. “The problems started almost from the beginning the first year she was there. The staff was very unhappy and made their unhappiness known and kind of got slapped down by the board,” she told City Weekly. She wonders whether the board is loyal to Elder because they hired her and “it’s too hard to admit a mistake.”

In addition to past employees, community groups are also commenting. The SugarHouse Community Council chair Cabot Nelson said the trustees voted Jan. 5 to send a letter asking that Sprague manager Adrian Juarez remain at Sprague. “We said we’d like her to stay and we wish her well in her endeavor,” Cabot says.

The secrecy and animosity is a dramatic switch from Tessman’s tenure as director, long-term employees say. Chip Ward, former assistant director from 2000 to 2007, wrote recently in a letter to the editor of The Salt Lake Tribune that the library board should not renew Elder’s contract. “[Elder’s] war with library managers reversed years of trust. … Dysfunction and fear now reign.”

Colleen McLaughlin, former assistant director who worked closely with Elder until McLaughlin’s retirement Dec. 31, told Library Journal, “I made a decision to retire because I could not support the direction we were going,” she said. “I think Beth lacks the administrative experience and leadership skills to manage the library.”

Elder’s confident the anger will pass. “Many people are starting to see the light … and to get excited” about the new structure, she says.

The persistent tension serves as the backdrop as Elder’s three-year contract expires in April and will be reviewed by the board. Gillilan, however, downplays the significance, calling the contract review a “formality [that] every director has. … I don’t foresee any need to make changes … in terms of leadership.”

In reaction to the hard feelings, Elder has amended the reorganization plan to include a full-time manager in charge of “building the culture” for library employees. That manager would be in charge of mentorship programs, continuing education, employee morale and the like (that goal is added to the strategic plan, detailed below).

Pierce says Elder is undermining her own mission by not focusing more attention on staff relations. “The library is not just a library [building], it’s the staff that’s there,” she says. “If they don’t feel comfortable or they don’t feel they have good leadership that supports them, it’s hard for them to give the very best they can.”

Needham Report - SLC Report, 5 Oct 2010

Salt Lake City Public Library Strategic Plan

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