GPL board’s silence on question of racism is deafening

To the Editor:
I am writing in regards to the abrupt closure of Café con Mel at the Guilderland Public Library. Like most other individuals connected to the library, I was taken aback by the circumstances detailed in Café con Mel’s statement on Feb. 21. I watched the February special board meetings with great interest.

Following these meetings, the GPL Board of Trustees published a statement on Feb. 29, announcing an investigation. This statement did little to address the public’s concern or questions posed on Feb. 26 and Feb. 28, but referred the public to review the vendor contract and board minutes on their website and meeting recordings on YouTube.

I took it upon myself to watch past board meetings, and what I eventually found shocked me:

In the Dec. 21, 2023 board of trustees meeting, racist comments by patrons regarding the café owners were discussed, including comments directly observed by a current board member. Tim Wiles [the library’s director at the time] recalled a specific incident that was reported to him, along with mentioning that he was aware of a total of three to four instances of similar behavior.

The board of trustees expressed concern about the future of the café operating within GPL given this climate, but was unable to put forth an effective plan of action to address this growing toxic culture. I do not have faith that the board of trustees can effectively govern the library given their inaction between the incident in September and first board discussion in December.

Furthermore, following the December meeting, the board and library allowed this culture of discrimination and harassment to continue.

What strikes me most is that the board of trustees knew about racist comments from patrons towards Café con Mel, but did not reveal any of this during the February special meetings, or in following statements.

The overall sentiment from the public appears to be that the closure of Cafe con Mel was abrupt and the alleged harassment only occurred in February 2024, when that is factually not the case. Racist comments were observed by board members at the café’s grand opening and several instances of similar behavior from patrons was reported to the library director before his departure.

The board of trustees and the library’s inaction did nothing to stem the inflammatory comments online and only produced further questions from the public. Speculation and assumptions regarding the contract and vetting of Café con Mel grew, rather than diminished.

A significant portion of the comments in the Feb. 26, 2024 special board meeting were pleas for more information, but very little information has been gleaned from hours of meetings, official statements, and reporting since Feb. 21.

The public’s desire was condensed into a question asked by county legislator Mark Grimm, “Do you have specific information that racism took place?”

The board of trustees’ silence to that question has been deafening.

The answer, however, is most definitely yes. I would encourage community members to review the Dec. 21, 2023 meeting.

Jason Kuhn


Editor’s note: The roughly 20-minute discussion at the Dec. 21, 2023 board of trustees meeting was provoked by a report that a patron told Melanie Partak, an owner of the Café con Mel, “cheaters never prosper” because the café’s rent with so much space was low compared to what vendors paid to be in the farmers’ market in the library parking lot.

Timothy Wiles, then the library’s director, said that the farmers’ market paid the same monthly rent as the café, adding, “Our legal counsel had advised us not to set market rent because that would make us a landlord and jeopardize our tax-exempt status.” Rather, the library charged the café $200 per month to cover costs.

Wiles said that, while most of the response to the café was “very positive” and he had never seen a negative interaction, Partak had told him the patron had said, “I’m old school. I don’t think there should be a restaurant in the library.”

Trustee Barbara Fraterrigo responded, “This is here as a public service.”

Wiles said that Partak had wanted the board to be aware of the incident. Board members then discussed explaining in the library’s newsletter or in The Altamont Enterprise to let people know that library patrons had wanted a café and it was difficult to find a vendor, that the Café con Mel wasn’t getting “a sweetheart deal.”

Trustee Marcia Alazraki said Partak had told her there had been questions about her ethnicity and Alazraki suggested the library post a sign that harassment will not be tolerated.

Trustee Norina Melita said one complaint doesn’t require an article. She advised not giving the matter “too much attention” as it is “one person.”

Trustee Elish Melchiade said, “I did field one of the particular people that gave odd feedback about her nationality … I think it was less ill-willed than it was ignorant.” The patron had complimented the Mexican food and Melchiade had corrected her that the two café owners were Puerto Rican and Filipina to which the patron replied, “Oh, are they visiting?”

Melchiade said the café was not making money hand over fist and said, “If she were to leave, I don’t think we’d ever get another vendor in here because it’s … been such a difficult and trying process.”

Wiles noted that one vendor, who already ran two cafés, turned down the library space because of the difficulty in finding staff.

Wiles said that, although he hadn’t heard the exchange himself over the misnamed Mexican food, the question about visiting was followed with, “They couldn’t find anyone else.” Wiles said that implied the library should have found a farm family “that had been here since the Dutch were here” as opposed to a second-generation American who grew up in Bethlehem.

That exchange, he said, had taken place at the café’s grand opening.

“I’d like to think our community is better than that,” said Wiles. “I think it is better than that.”

Both Wiles and Melchiade said they were aware of “three or four” negative comments altogether, presumably either questioning the need for a café in a library or questioning the owners’ ethnicity.

Luanne Nicholson, the library’s public information officer, said the negative comments from patrons had been in person. “I haven’t seen anything online,” she said.

“I believe the café is our ally. We’re teammates …,” said Wiles. “It’s in our best interest for the vendor to succeed.”

He said having a café, which was the number-one priority for residents in a 2019 survey as the library was expanding, was preferable to having high-end vending machines. He called that alternative “not nearly as pleasant and friendly.”

More Letters to the Editor

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.