No furloughs at Guilderland Public Library, browsing date pushed back

— From GPL board packet for Dec. 17 meeting

In the midst of construction, Guilderland library staff clear books.

GUILDERLAND — The trustees of the public library here formally offered their “thanks and commendation to the library staff for their work during very difficult times” at the close of their Dec. 17 meeting.

The board has also dropped any consideration of furloughs for library staff.

The resolution followed a week of tumult in which a handful of protesters holding signs that said “No Furlough” and “Thank You GPL Staff” stood in front of the library on Western Avenue, and a half-dozen letters supporting library staff were published in The Enterprise.

Library staff is currently working in the midst of a $9 million expansion project as well as pandemic restrictions.

At their November meeting, which, like the December meeting, was held as a video conference, trustees had listened to staff comments — many of them anonymous — about health and safety concerns. The board then postponed the target date for opening the library for public browsing from Dec. 1 to Jan. 13.

“I’m not ready to open the library for browsing on Jan. 13,” said Director Timothy Wiles at the Dec. 17 meeting. “It’s supposed to be like the darkest days of the pandemic at that point.”

The board’s president, Kaitlin Downey, noted that the town of Guilderland is under a state of emergency with town buildings closed to the public because of the surge in COVID-19 cases.

Ultimately, the board pushed public browsing further out to an undetermined date to be decided upon by an as-yet-unnamed ad hoc COVID committee.

At the November meeting, trustee Jason Wright had asked, “When are we going to say we’re not going to open and we’re going to have the discussion of furloughs?” He also said it was “not fair for taxpayers to be paying a full price” for “artificial … virtual things … not being able to see the collection or access certain things they would if it was open.”

Trustee Barbara Fraterrigo, the board’s longest-serving member, then recommended taking a preliminary look at the possibility of furloughs.

This led two librarians to write a letter to the Enterprise editor, saying that GPL staff were “shocked and demoralized” by trustees’ comments. That and a Dec. 10 Enterprise story on the subject led to an outpouring of comments in support of library staff, some of it critical of trustees.


Public comment

Twenty pages of comments — 23 comments from the public and 11 from the staff — were read into the record at the Dec. 17 meeting by the board’s president, Downey.

Trustee Mark Keeling had made a motion to postpone public comment until the board had a chance to develop policy on whether anonymous comments would be accepted.

Trustee Richard Rubin strongly opposed the motion, saying, “We can’t deny the public comment we already said we’d take.”

“We serve the public and part of serving the public is listening to what they have to say,” agreed trustee Marcia Alazraki.

Fraterrigo said all of the trustees had received the comments, they would become part of the public record, and reading them would take a lot of time.

Trustee Peter Hubbard said he was never against public comment but didn’t like anonymous comments.

Ultimately, five board members voted in favor of the motion — Keeling, Hubbard, Bryan Best, Fraterrigo, and Wright — and five voted against it: Alazraki, Rubin, Cathy Barber, Nareen Rivas, and Downey.

“The motion fails,” said Downey and proceeded to read the comments.

Meghan Wakeman, who had organized the rally, wrote that the trustees were “wildly out of touch with reality.” While several others also criticized the trustees, most commented on the excellent service they had received from library staff during the pandemic. “The library serves as a constant rainbow,” wrote Cindy Wadach.

Some of the staff wrote in personal terms about the difficulties of working under the joint stress of the pandemic and the construction project and also, when they couldn’t see they’re own families, how the staff became a family.

Many wrote they were working harder and longer in providing library services now. Heather Nelson wrote how staff was helping with everything from home-schooling to dealing with loss at a time when information can mean life or death.

“We’re helping to hold the community together,” wrote Lisa Pitkin.



The library board’s personnel committee chaired by Barry Nelson met on Dec. 8 to discuss furloughs.

Nelson resigned from the board afterwards. His letter of resignation, read at the Dec. 17 meeting, said “All good things must come to an end.”

Later in the meeting, the board voted to appoint Philip Metzger to fill out Nelson’s term. Metzger had been ousted in last spring’s election. Nelson had recommended that he be replaced by Herbert Hennings, the other incumbent trustee who lost his seat in the June elections.

Downey read out loud Nelson’s report of the Dec. 8 committee meeting, attended by trustees Azaraki, Barber, Fraterrigo, and Rubin as well as by attorney Kristine Lanchantin; Timothy Wiles, the library’s director; Margaret Garrett, the library’s assistant director; and Carol Kott, the library’s fiscal officer.

“Attorney Lanchantin said that furloughs and layoffs are not a contract issue — the board can unilaterally impose them,” Nelson’s report said. “Carol stated that laid-off or furloughed employees do not receive benefits but can receive unemployment benefits, which the library reimburses the state.”

Nelson’s report also said, “Richard [Rubin], Cathy [Barber], and Marcia [Azaraki] kept stating they did not think we should be meeting to discuss furloughs, they did not see a financial problem because the library budget had recently been passed, that due to the Altamont Enterprise article we should cancel the meeting, and that they had no idea what the agenda for the meeting was, even though it had been made clear to them twice.”

“The characterizations in this report are subjective and not warranted,” Rubin said. What he had objected to, he said, was that it was not a public meeting.

“I heard nothing that led me to believe we had a financial crisis of any kind and that talking about furloughs was even necessary …,” said Barber. “That’s what I stated at the meeting. The chair didn’t like that.”

Azaraki called the committee meeting “chaotic” and said, “I don’t see any point to discussing furloughs right now.” She also said, “I was very touched by what we heard both from the public and the staff and suspect that all of us were.”

Fraterrigo said that information from Kott and Garrett provided at the committee meeting was “fantastic.” She learned that “furloughs were not cost effective even in the future for the library.”

This is because staff put on furlough would be eligible for unemployment and, since the library is self-insured, “You reimburse the state for those funds anyway,” she said.

Fraterrigo concluded, “It was a fact-finding mission … It was a very productive meeting.”

While he appreciates the research, Best said, “I have a concern with the financial situation of the library.”

Downey suggested that Best, as head of the board’s finance committee, could look into those concerns. Best said he’d be happy to.


Offering thanks

At the end of the Dec. 17 meeting, which stretched over three hours, Rubin proposed a resolution to thank the library’s staff members for its work.

“I have felt that every criticism against the board and every hurt feeling and every feeling of insecurity about jobs and every criticism that has been expressed over the week has been directed toward each of us and not as a board,” he said. “And it has been upsetting and it has hurt.”

Rubin said that comments made by some individuals were generalized to be that of the entire board and also that board members have a fiduciary responsibility to look at options, which is different from taking action on things like layoffs and furloughs.

At the November meeting, Rubin had said he was speaking as a physician when he said it would be a mistake to open the library for browsing.

“Everyone’s tensions are at a fever pitch and everyone is hypersensitive, hyperaware because of our current climate,” he said at the December meeting.

Rubin read from a Trustee magazine article, “What is a library that can’t open its doors?”

He answered, “I would say we remain a library. We remain a library that’s building literally and figuratively to serve the public only better in the coming years ….”

Rubin’s resolution commended library staff, in the midst of COVID and construction, for continuing “to meet the community needs and desires for information and resources in dedicated, diligent, and creative ways.”

Before the board voted unanimously to adopt Rubin’s resolution, Rivas, the board’s vice president, offered her thoughts. She said she couldn’t sleep the night the  Dec. 10 Enterprise came out with the news article and letter from the librarians.

“The library has truly been a lifeline for my family during the last six months or so,” Rivas said.

She described summer reading and crafts her sons had done through the library and lively virtual workshops she had attended.

“These things have provided normalcy during a not-so-normal time,” said Rivas, adding that library staff “make the services they provide for the public seem effortless.”

Rivas said she was confused when fellow board members brought up furloughs because she thought “fiscally we were doing fine.”

“Our library is not its building but its people,” said Downey.

She also said, “I feel as if I was misrepresented in the Enterprise article. Having to direct the committee to explore furloughs was not because I wanted them personally but because a board member asked.”

Downey was reported as saying, “I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to say the library is not providing any services right now,” and also saying, after Wright suggested discussing furloughs, that, if furloughs were in the offing, it would be good to give library staff “a chance to figure out what they’re going to do over the winter.”

“I’m the big bad bear in this whole discussion,” said Fraterrigo, “because I did mention furloughs simply as an intellectual exercise and I think a lot of this angst could have been prevented had someone just said, ‘Why do you want to learn about that?’”

She concluded, “I totally and heartily agree with both Nareen and Richard that we have a fabulous staff that has done yeoman’s work.”

Downey ended the meeting by thanking “all of the public and all of the staff.”

“You’ve been heard,” she said.

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