The sooner the truth is known, the better for the library, for the Café con Mel, and for the public

- Generated with Firefly

When I was in the third grade, I missed most of the school year, quarantined at home with scarlet fever. Books from the public library were my lifeline.

My toys had to be burned. But my mother let me wear her silken bed jacket and I would sit, propped up against pillows, and read, or be read to.

One of my favorite books in those dark times was Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth,” which had just come out. I would imagine a tollbooth magically appearing in my room just as it had in Milo’s.

I would pretend I could travel with him and his dog of course. My father was prone to puns so the word play in the book was at once tantalizing and comforting for me.

The lessons I learned from that book instruct me today. One that is particularly useful for a journalist came to mind as I sat in the Guilderland Public Library on Feb. 26.

It has to do with jumping to conclusions.

Milo and his friends see in the distance what looks to be a beautiful island covered with palm trees and flowers. But when they literally jump to the Island of Conclusions they find an unpleasant place with rocks and the twisted stumps of long-dead trees.

Milo asks the first man who happens by where they have landed.

“To be sure,” said Canby; “you’re on the Island of Conclusions. Make yourself at home. You’re apt to be here for some time.”

Canby is called that because he says he is as tall as can be, as short as can be, as fast as can be, and so on.

Milo and his friends find it is hard to get off the island; they cannot just jump back.

“Getting back is not so easy,” Canby had warned. “That’s why we’re so terribly crowded here.”

Eventually Milo and his friends make the long swim through the Sea of Knowledge to return to their travels.

I was in a sort of Sea of Knowledge at the Guilderland library on Feb. 26. The library’s board of trustees was wise to set up a forum to listen to people’s concerns.

After being open less than six months, the library’s first café had abruptly closed on Feb. 21 as its owners, Melanie Diaz Parker and Joy Mercado Anderson, leveled charges of racism on the café’s Facebook page.

“I have faced racism, harassment and constant disrespect,” said a Feb. 21 post on the Café con Mel website. “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.”

The people in the Feb. 26 crowd were largely seeking answers rather than jumping to conclusions.

Abdul Jabbar, a resident of Guilderland for 13 years, put it succinctly: He said it needs to be understood whether the café closure is a matter of racism or of bad business.

The café owners were not at the meeting and have been largely unavailable to the press, making it hard to find the truth.

We at The Enterprise have researched what we could on the business side. An anonymous commenter on Feb. 26 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.

At a Feb. 28 library board meeting, another anonymous commenter said Partak had told her that Café con Mel had had a location in Albany for a few months where the café was held up twice. The day of the second hold-up, the commenter related, Partak said she closed up the café for good. “It still makes one wonder if it was a pattern,” the commenter said.

But it would be jumping to conclusions to assume that prior business problems and closures were the cause of the café’s library closure, too.

While a number of people of color commented on how welcoming they found the library, that doesn’t mean everyone was treated that way. As Kevin Powell told the trustees at the Feb. 26 forum, “Bad things can happen in good places.”

Again, it would be jumping to conclusions to assume that, because many people say they were treated well, that the café owners were too.

So we applaud the library trustees for voting at their Feb. 28 meeting to hire an outside firm to investigate the charges of racism and harassment leveled by the Café con Mel. We hope the agency is hired quickly and works with alacrity.

The sooner the truth is known, the better for the library, for the Café con Mel, and for the public.

At its next meeting, the library board will also discuss how to handle a second investigation; this one will look into the process used to award the bid to the Café con Mel. The board is considering doing its own investigation, having its law firm investigate, or again hiring an outside agency.

We also applaud the library, under the direction of its interim director, Nate Heyer, for bringing its relevant policies up to date. “I wanted to make sure all of our policies were being followed,” said Heyer.

At the board’s Feb. 28 meeting, the board reviewed its policies on harassment and on releasing information. The board named two officers to handle complaints about harassment or discrimination: the human resources director and the library director; both posts are currently vacant.

The trustees named the assistant director as the freedom of information officer and the director as the appeals officer.

While the meeting with the large crowd was civil throughout with the trustees in a mode of “active listening” as the board’s vice president called it, the board’s meeting on Feb. 28 had some tense moments.

The setting was more intimate. On Feb. 26, the crowd was seated in rows of chairs in a large room, facing a table of trustees at the front of the meeting hall. On Feb. 28, the board members gathered at a table with 16 onlookers seated around the edge of a small room.

Board meetings of elected officials, like the one conducted by library trustees, are required by state law to be open to the public. That means the public is entitled to observe.

As the Open Meetings Law explains, “​​It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that the public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens of this state be fully aware of and able to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy. The people must be able to remain informed if they are to retain control over those who are their public servants.”

But that does not mean the public has a right to speak at board meetings. Many boards, like the Guilderland library’s board, set aside public-comment periods at the beginning or end of meetings, or both, so that views from onlookers may be aired.

This is a sensible practice; it gives boards a way to gauge public concerns. We appreciate it when answers are readily at hand if boards or administrators can respond in the moment to questions or concerns.

For example, at a Guilderland School Board meeting in February, a few commenters were pushing for the district to start a flag football team this year. The superintendent could immediately give a response as to why that was unlikely to happen.

Many times, however, boards are unable to give immediate responses. In the current situation with the library board, trustees are wisely waiting until a third party finds facts before they take action.

At the Feb. 28 library meeting, trustee Vanessa Threatte properly interceded in the midst of an exchange that was becoming heated, saying board members don’t have back-and-forth dialog with onlookers during their meetings.

“I hope no one takes offense,” she said.

“I do,” said Deborah Doran, an outspoken resident rightly concerned about racism. “This is not a private institution.” She said the public was invited and taxpayers were paying the board members.

That was, of course, jumping to conclusions.

The board’s vice president, Elish Melchiade, noted the trustees are unpaid, and trustee Norina Melita responded that the board listens to the public without an immediate response — taking it under consideration during trustee discussions to later be able to “respond with one voice.”

That model has worked well so far in dealing with the claims of racism. The trustees listened to the crowd, understood facts were needed, and has now agreed to hire an outside firm to investigate.

The library had issued a statement on Feb. 23, saying it had been conducting an investigation and had an in-depth talk with Partak, which had shown the problems were “not driven by discrimination based on any protected class” — in other words, not racism — but rather from disagreement “about roles and responsibilities for library staff versus cafe staff.”

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, which the library said would take 20 days to answer.

At its Feb. 28 meeting, the library trustees voted to approve what the board president termed "early retirement packages" for Maria Buhl and Kim LaPlant.

While we’ve been unable to reach either LaPlant or Buhl, we caution against jumping to conclusions about their retirement.

Buhl has had a long and stellar career at the Guilderland library, most recently as head of Community Engagement and Outreach. We wrote in 2006 when Buhl was selected among 1,300 nominees to be chosen among 25 winners of the 2006 New York Times Librarian Award.

At that time, she had started two very successful programs at the Guilderland library — one fostering adult literacy and the other providing health information. She has a great attitude of helpfulness toward library patrons, said Rober Ganz, then president of the library board.

Since this editorial was published on March 7, Buhl answered our Feb. 29 email, stating that she and LaPlant were offered retirement in October 2023. “Both of us are older than 62, each of us has worked at the Library for more than 20 years,” Buhl wrote, stressing, “For me and Kim, this is not ‘early.’ Nor does my retirement or Kim’s have anything to do with allegations from the café owner.”

Heyer confirmed Buhl’s statement and added, “Our retirement incentives were in the works before Café con Mel opened here.”

The Enterprise did get quick responses to Freedom of Information Law requests from both the Guilderland Police and the Albany County Health Department. During the café’s brief time at the library, two health-department inspections were made.

The first, on Aug. 9, before it opened, found no violations or hazards and stated the café was “good to open.” The second, on Sept. 13, found one violation that was not “critical”: “food not protected.”

The Guilderland Police, asked about any complaints regarding the café, noted just one: On Jan.10, Melanie Partak had lodged a complaint with the police, alleging that a library employee, whose name is blacked out on the incident report, “signed for a package of hers and kept it in a storage room for a week before giving it to her.” The package was opened but undamaged, the report says.

Partak told the police that she and her husband, Jonathan Partak, “had constant issues with this individual since opening her business in September” and “wished to make a report in the event that behavior like this continues.”

The incident report does not include a response from the accused employee, and no arrest was made.

Sometimes, when swimming in the Sea of Knowledge, it is necessary to tread water. Rather than jumping to conclusions, we need to have more information. While no one has questioned the harm caused by racism, concluding without evidence that it has occurred can also be harmful.

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