Crowd seeks truth on claims of racism at Guilderland library after café closure

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

“I always consider a library to be a sanctuary ….,” said Guilderland Councilman Gustavo Santos on Monday night. He told the Guilderland library trustees, “I implore you to do a quick review on what happened because we certainly want to know the truth.”

GUILDERLAND — About 75 people flocked to the public library here on Monday night looking for the truth. They came with questions about why the library’s café had abruptly shut as its owners leveled charges of racism.

Abdul Jabbar, a resident of Guilderland for 13 years, said it needs to be understood whether the café closure is a matter of racism or bad business. “When it is not discrimination, we don’t call it discrimination” as that trivializes the hurt of actual discrimination, he said to resounding applause.

There were no answers.

But on Wednesday, Feb. 28, the library board met and agreed to hire an outside party to investigate the allegations raised by the Café Con Mel. The trustees unanimously voted to hire a third-party research firm “to remove all bias” as the board’s vice president, Elish Melchiade, put it.

She ran the meeting on Wednesday as she had on Monday in the absence of the board’s president. The trustees set no timeline for the investigation and have yet to hire a firm.

As a separate matter, the board agreed it would also conduct an investigation on the process that led to the hiring of Café con Mel in the first place.

Melchiade read a statement, requesting that “conclusions not be drawn till all the facts are known."

On Monday, Melchiade, and the library's interim director, Nate Heyer — each reading from carefully prepared statements — sat with a line of trustees at the front of the meeting room, listening for about an hour before adjourning to a closed session.

Television cameras filmed the public meeting; the allegations have been widely covered by the media.

After less than six months at the library, the Café con Mel closed on Wednesday, Feb. 21, with no warning. The café, owned by Melanie Diaz Partak and Joy Mercado Anderson, was a first for the library.

“I have faced racism, harassment and constant disrespect,” said a post on the Café con Mel Facebook page. “These issues have not only come from patrons, which I am no stranger to dealing with, but they have come worse surprisingly from the Library staff members.”

Neither Partak nor Anderson could be reached for comment.

Melchiade said the claims made by the café’s owners are being investigated but said staff and the trustees would be giving no responses to questions on Monday night, engaging only in “active listening.”

While there were no answers, several allegations raised at the meeting led The Enterprise to look more closely at problems with the business.

An anonymous commenter called the allegations of racism “baseless and implausible” and alleged financial difficulties on the part of the café owners.

New York State records show that Melanie D. Fillerup, of D&L Hospitality, owes $6,880.65 in sales tax while a 2021 state certificate-of-doing-business-under-an-assumed-name form shows Melanie Diaz Fillerup doing business under the name of Café Con Mel at 133 Remsen St. in Cohoes.

Later in the meeting, Mark Grimm, an Albany County legislator representing part of Guilderland, said that the vendor had a $10,000 loan from the Cohoes Local Development Corporation that wasn’t paid back and questioned how carefully the library vetted the vendor.

Researching minutes from meetings of the Cohoes LDC, The Enterprise found that “Diaz Enterprises - Café con Mel” was given a $10,000 loan in February 2021; minutes show the lowest the balance ever got was $9,367.73 in July 2021.

At its Jan. 25, 2024 meeting, the Cohoes LDC board voted to commence legal action against Café con Mel, the minutes say.

The library issued a statement on Thursday, Feb. 22, the day after the café closed, saying it would investigate the allegations of harassment and racism, which it does not condone and has policies in place to prevent and prohibit.

On Friday, Feb. 23, the library issued a second statement, saying it had been conducting an investigation and had an in-depth talk with Partak.

“The library would like to acknowledge a poor working relationship that formed with the Cafe due to the behavior of some individual members of our staff,” the statement said. “The behavior that occurred was not driven by discrimination based on any protected class ….”

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, protected classes include men and women on the basis of sex; any group which shares a common race, religion, color, or national origin; people over 40; and people with physical or mental handicaps.

Friday’s statement went on to say that, rather, disagreements on the part of certain members of library staff were “about roles and responsibilities for library staff versus cafe staff, and differing interpretations of the Cafe’s contract among some members of the library team.”

The Enterprise had filed a Freedom of Information Law request with the library for the café’s contract and for any complaints lodged either against or from Partak and Anderson.

Luanne Nicholson, the library’s public information officer, promptly responded that she would need 20 business days “to compile and review the records you have requested, to the extent the Guilderland Public Library possesses such records.”

However, The Enterprise found a copy of the library’s contract with the Café con Mel on the library’s website as part of the packet for the board’s May 18, 2023 meeting. At that meeting, the board unanimously approved the lease.

The one-year lease appears straightforward, listing hours of operation, and outlining the space in the Normanskill Room for the café with a monthly rent of $200 “to cover the cost of utilities, payable on the first of each month.” As a public entity, the library is not allowed to make a profit on the use of its space, but only to cover its costs.

As the landlord, the library was responsible for the payment of utilities, including reasonable gas, water, and electrical use for the leased premises only, and for the cost of routine cleaning, maintenance and repair to the common areas, as well as snow removal to the parking lots, the contract stated. 

The tenant was to be responsible for the care and cleaning of the café and the outdoor seating area, the contract said, and to insure it met all health and safety requirements.

Partak and Anderson had run a café by the same name in Cohoes for two years. A GoFundMe campaign started by a friend of Partak in the midst of the pandemic sought to raise $35,000 for the Cohoes café and came up with $2,445.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the pandemic, the Guilderland Public Library carried through an $8.8 million project, which expanded and upgraded the library. The project broke ground in October 2020 and was finished 11 months ahead of schedule and under budget.

Timothy Wiles, the director of the library who retired on Feb. 2 after a decade at the helm, told The Enterprise before he retired that a public survey showed the number-one priority was a café, which opened on Aug. 30.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the café was held at the library on Sept. 9 with a host of town and county officials.

“Administrators and board members have tried to protect me and take action on incidents that have occurred but unfortunately to no avail. The staff is protected by a union that ties their hands on properly addressing many incidents …,” Partak’s Facebook post said.

“My heart goes out to the very few staff members that supported us. I love you and I appreciate you immensely,” the post goes on. “Please know that the actions of your peers are separate in our minds, but the toxic work environment is unacceptable …

“As a female minority owned small business, it is our responsibility to show our community and aspiring young people that women in business are respected, supported and welcome ….”

The library follows school district lines so presumably has similar racial make-up of patrons. For the 2022-23 school year, the most recent year tallied by the State Education Department, Guilderland was 70 percent white, 15 percent Asian, 6 percent Hispanic or Latino, 5 percent Black, and 4 percent multitracial.

 

Public comment

Monday’s meeting began with the library’s public information officer, Nicholson, reading 11 submitted statements.

Similar to the 14 people who spoke in person, the comments were far more measured than the inflammatory and hateful comments posted online.

The library had posted a notice on its Facebook page, saying, “We regret we had to turn off comments as they were becoming inflammatory, personally threatening to some and contained profanity.”

One posted comment said, “The library staff is straight [expletive] trash” while another said, “I hope the ‘woke mob’ takes you apart brick by brick.”

The comments at Monday’s meeting were often supportive of library staff. Some expressed warm memories of the café and its owners while others questioned their allegations of racism. Several people of color spoke, saying they had not experienced racism at the library.

The most common call was one for answers on whether racism and harassment had occurred — or not. 

A woman with a written comment who gave her name only as “Sandra” said she had been to the café on Feb. 2 and Partak was “gushing” about how well she was treated and “said everyone couldn’t be nicer.”

Similarly, the months of posts made on the Café con Mel Facebook page were all cordial, often commenting on the support from the community and the library; that is, until the final post.

Several comments read at the meeting stated the café was often unexpectedly closed and one said a librarian could have been more professional when answering a question about the hours by saying, “Who knows when they’ll be here. You’ll just have to keep checking.”

One of the most forceful statements that Nicholson read was from Therese Assalian, who handles communication for the Capital Region Civil Service Employees Association.

“It is unfortunate that differences over a contract between the café and library management have devolved to the point where unsubstantiated allegations labeling library staffers as racist are circulating in commentary across social media and in the press,” the CSEA statement said. “These allegations vilify workers, damage reputations, and make staff feel unsafe.”

The statement concluded, “Reports that library management is powerless to address issues due to the presence of a ‘union,’ is categorically false.”

The last comment Nicholson read was an anonymous one by someone who blamed the trustees and staff for not properly vetting the café owners. That same anonymous commenter took a jab at Melchiade, saying the library board’s vice president was a close friend of Partak. Melchiade told The Enterprise after the meeting that she knew Partak but that she did not have a particular role in selecting Café con Mel for the library.

The library had searched for a vendor for months. “Everything was done according to how we’d handle any vendor,” Melchiade said.

Among the in-person speakers on Monday night, Deborah Doran, 64, was one of the most colorful; wearing a rainbow-striped top, she spread her arms wide as she said, “This library is a landmark.” The allegations of “racism” and “discrimination” — those two words, she said, “brought me to my knees.”

She told the trustees, “If we have racism in our library, we have a stain on our community.”

Adrienne Nicholson, a Black woman, said she and her family had never experienced any racism at the library.

“What we’re missing here is the N-word,” said Kevin Powell, another person of color. The word he was referring to was “nuance.”

While Guilderland is not a racist place, he said, “Bad things can happen in good places.”

Meg Gallow, as a graduate student, said she’d spent a lot of time at the library and liked the café. Of finding another vendor, she asked, “What can we do to do it better next time?”

Mark Grimm said the library’s reputation was tarnished based on a claim in a Facebook post and it was incumbent on the board to see if racism was the cause of the closing.

“That’s what people are looking for,” he said, adding, if there was no racism, “The employees of this library have been harmed.”

“The facts aren’t out yet,” said Stephanie Crosby, adding, “It’s very irresponsible for the café owner to make that Facebook post with the biggest trigger word in our culture.”

If it turns out to be racism, she said, it should be addressed, but, she concluded, “If it’s unfounded, we deserve for our community not to get undue heat.”

Nareen Rivas, a former library trustee, said she spoke from the perspective of a woman and a minority member.

She had wanted to support the café, she said, but stopped coming because it was so frequently closed. Rivas also said, when she and her son were eating “pricey” food at the café, they felt unsettled as furniture was being moved for a book-signing event. “I felt perhaps a conflict,” she said.

Rivas concluded that the original post was inflammatory and that some Facebook comments broke her heart as “a lot of people have been throwing fire on gasoline.”

Guilderland Councilwoman Amanda Beedle, too, spoke of having a broken heart and urged the board to “move along” with its investigation.

The board appeared to heed that advice as, on Tuesday, the library announced on its Facebook page that another special board meeting would be held on Feb. 28 at 6 p.m. “to establish the next steps in investigating recent claims and to consider recent community feedback,” with more public comment welcome.

“A library is no place for hate,” Beedle said; rather, it should be inclusive and welcoming for all. The repercussions she said are “damaging to our town.”

Beedle told the trustees, “Transparency is going to be your friend.”

Lynettte Johnson, who homeschooled her daughter using the Guilderland library, said she hoped for full disclosure and transparency and she hoped the owner of the café could attend as she urged the board to present its findings.

“I always consider a library to be a sanctuary ….,” said Guilderland Councilman Gustavo Santos. “I love Guilderland … I feel welcome in Guilderland as a person of color and I got elected here.”

Santos told the trustees, “I implore you to do a quick review on what happened because we certainly want to know the truth.”

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