More transparent library leadership in Easthampton
The Emily Williston Memorial Library Executive Board meets March 20 at the Municipal Building. Clockwise from the left they are James McMahon, Library Director Kristi Chadwick, Eric Poulin, Ron Bednarz, Raymah Hutchinson, Tom Raffensperger, and Carrie Hague. JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »
EASTHAMPTON — In the year since sexual harassment allegations against a longtime board member of the city’s public library created a furor among residents, reforms have been instituted that change the way the Emily Williston Memorial Library conducts its business.
The library leadership has taken steps to increase its accessibility to the public and continues to work on repairing its public image after the scandal.
“There’s an atmosphere of people really rolling up their sleeves; the will is there to do it,” said Thomas Raffensperger, one of two city representatives Mayor Michael A. Tautznik appointed to the library board last year. He was referring to the board’s stated mission to fix what was wrong.
“We all know the library should be a celebration of the community, not a point of contention,” Raffensperger said.
A year ago former longtime library director Rebecca Plimpton told the Gazette she had been sexually harassed by then board member Donald L. Cykowski from 2000 until her resignation in 2007 — and that the board took no steps to stop the harassment. In the weeks following that disclosure, Cykowski resigned and the library adopted a sexual harassment policy. But city residents pushed for the library board to be more transparent.
Although not run by the city, the Emily Williston Memorial Library, under the direction of the Public Library Association of Easthampton, receives more than half its funding from the city. With that leverage, Tautznik negotiated a new contract with the library that created two city representative positions on the library’s board of directors and required the library to provide meeting minutes and other documents to the city so they would be available to the public.
Tautznik said the board has been willing to work with his representatives and has made progress toward more openness.
“The library management is earnestly trying to work together to address the concerns we had,” he said. “Everyone’s trying to work together, and that’s what we want.”
Positive change noted
Eric Poulin, vice president of the library’s executive board, said the changes go beyond greater transparency.
Poulin is on a subcommittee working on an overhaul of the association’s bylaws. Library Director Kristi Chadwick, hired last April, is updating library policies. She is also bringing the library’s technology up to date and wants to expand library hours.
“It’s definitely been a year of progress,” Chadwick said Monday. “Now we’re looking at where we want to go in the future.”
She is spearheading the effort to update the library’s strategic plan for the first time in more than 10 years, and will be seeking input from community members in the coming year to determine what the institution’s goals should be.
The city representatives, Raffensperger and Raymah Hutchinson, were named to the library’s board of directors, but Tautznik told the executive board he expected the pair would be able to attend the executive board’s meetings as well. If necessary, they would report back to him.
Raffensperger said that when he and Hutchinson went to their first executive meeting in October, they were ready for a frosty reception and expected to “sit around the edges” and observe.
“But they literally made room at the table for us,” he recalled. “We were made to feel welcome from day one, and since then have been listened to and been encouraged to contribute substantively to both decision-making and implementation.”
Hutchinson, a longtime organizer of the fundraising group Emily’s Friends of the Library, said she asked to be a city representative last summer because she wanted to take the mystery out of the library’s management.
“At that time there was a lot of talk about the corporators not being transparent, and I had always felt that way,” she said last week. “It seemed very difficult just to see who was in charge or when they met. But I have to say ... I have never been to a meeting where there has not been a commitment to being open and transparent ... and I’m a cynic.”
She said she has been heartened as she watched the board work hard to set a different tone.
“I have seen effort on the part of the members to take a new path,” she said. “We’re all aware that there were problems and every step we take is careful.”
The executive board has also recommended that the association change its bylaws to allow the representatives full membership in the association so they can vote at association meetings and join subcommittees.
In addition to Hutchinson and Raffensperger, the association added at least three new members last year, and two have moved into top leadership positions. The executive board now includes Ronald Bednarz as president, new members Eric Poulin as vice president and Dennis Lacourse as treasurer, and longtime member Susan Boss as secretary. Other members are James McMahon, Melissa Fagnand and Carrie Hague.
After holding its meetings in the library for as long as anyone can remember, both the executive board and the board of directors began meeting in the Municipal Building in September.
“In the new spirit of openness, we felt that it was important to have these meetings in a more public location — not just in the library, after hours, locked away,” Poulin said. “Hopefully the simple symbolism of this will reflect a new intent to be transparent with as many dealings as possible.”
The board meetings remain closed to the public with the exception of the 30-minute public speak time at the beginning of each meeting, Raffensperger said. Tautznik said he thinks the public speak time is an adequate “opportunity for public input.”
Tautznik said he received the library corporation documents he requested in the contract, including one that lists the members of the association, and the information is available to the public in his office. He also has minutes from all executive board and association meetings held since September, though he hasn’t received any from the quarterly directors meetings.
Hutchinson said while she does think the library board’s image “suffered” after the harassment scandal, it hasn’t affected the community’s view of the library. “They know the library itself is well run. They know the people they see every day there and they know they care about it,” she said.
“What I have seen since I was appointed,” Raffensperger said, “is strong support for the library from a wide range of community members: Emily’s Friends, the city, the association and the public. People are rooting for the library, encouraging it and moving it forward.”
He said he hopes to see that support manifest in more patrons in the library and more residents at the executive board’s meetings on the third Wednesday of each month in the Municipal Building at 6:30 p.m. That’s where they can help him and the rest of the library managers work toward a more open and successful library organization, he said.
“It’s a positive cycle that I look forward to building on with the rest of the board members,” he said.
Rebecca Everett can be reached at email@example.com.