Walker Memorial Library in Westbrook doesn’t have a Board of Regents anymore and the former board president says “without it, I worry for the library.” Photo courtesy of Scott Linscott

WESTBROOK — Members of the now defunct Walker Memorial Library Board of Regents agree there was dysfunction and tension between them and library staff, but they disagree among themselves on the cause.

The City Council unanimously agreed last month to abolish the library board and replace it with an advisory committee with more clearly defined, hands-off roles, a move that has angered former board President Judith Reidman. Other regents, however, say that the board micromanaged and bullied, and that got in the way of important library work. City Manager Jerre Bryant says some of the blame for the whole situation lies with the 130-year-old will of Joseph Walker, who bequeathed the library to the city.

The council’s decision came after an attorney working for the city interviewed former and current library staff in Dec. 2019 as part of an investigation into a “personnel matter” within the library, and found “dysfunction” between staff and the board, according to Mayor Mike Foley.

Reidman

“No doubt there was dysfunction and communication issues, but nowhere in the attorney’s report does it say to get rid of the board,” said Reidman, who was appointed in 2010.”We are a group of people that love the library, and without it, I worry for the library.”

A long history 

The Board of Regents’ seven members, two at-large members one and each from each city ward, were volunteers appointed by the mayor, and would regularly hold meetings at the library to discuss expenses and policy. Many regents also volunteered at the library, Reidman said.

The board was established in 1894 when library trustees turned the library over to the city. A city ordinance calls for the board to “discharge all duties incumbent upon the city respecting the Walker Memorial Library.”

The library trustees, a maximum of three, are appointed for life by a probate court overseeing Walker’s will, are advisors to the Board of Regents, according to the ordinance, and ensure the library stays in compliance with the will.

The trustees – there are currently two – will continue their roles as advisors to the new advisory committee.

“The regents (were) quite effective and instrumental in moving the library forward since 1894 when the trustees gave the city the library and had it not been for the board in conjunction with the trustees, this library would not exist today as it does,” said Fran Fritzsche-Jensen said, a trustee since 1979.

“(The city is) trying to solve an internal personnel problem with an ordinance change, which isn’t the right way to go about it,” Fritzsche-Jensen said.

Reidman said that, in general, personnel matters arose when regents had to step in to carry out library staff duties, such as disposing of trash that would overflow receptacles that weren’t emptied in a timely fashion. She said the Regents often cleaned up messes inside the library and trash on the property outside.

“We had to take care of those things because they weren’t getting done. We weren’t in there all the time for no reason,” Reidman said.

Older regents are knowledgeable and enjoyed helping library patrons, she said. Many volunteered regularly and organized and assisted with library programs.

Day to day involvement

City officials argue the board was too involved in day to day operations, causing tension in the workplace and hindering work.

“It really had evolved into what I would call a management committee opposed to an advisory committee. That’s very difficult in finances, personnel matters, in decision making,” City Administrator Jerre Bryant said.

“It also resulted in a lot of favoritism and issues with staff members, which is a problem … in that some people get more favorable treatment from the board than others,” he said.

Bryant said those issues made hiring difficult and that the “strongest candidates come from out of state because of our reputation” locally.

“I’ve gone through three recruitment processes for library directors since I’ve been here and it’s been very difficult,” he said.

Regent Andrea Mancuso, appointed in 2019, said board’s daily involvement in the library got in the way of its larger work.

“I was expecting to engage in more of a strategic planning process of the library,” Mancuso said. “We didn’t engage in any of that, because the day to day management issues kept coming on to the agendas.”

“There really needed to be clarity in the board,” she said.

Nancy Heath, who also appointed as a regent in 2019, said the board was “unlike any other board” she has served on.

“Immediately, my first impulse was to get off the board. I thought about it, though, and I didn’t want to run the other way and quit something when I see something isn’t right,” Heath said.

Differing opinions during her tenure, Heath said, often focused on library Director Rosemary Bebris and the role of the regents.

Heath said many regents, along with the trustees, aimed to micromanage Bebris, who took the job in 2019 after working as a library director in Pelham, New Hampshire. They tried to control Bebris’ decisions, including, for example, what color window drapes should be, she said. When Heath spoke up against such control, she said, she’d be bullied.

“If I tried to speak up, I’d feel targeted. They’d change meeting times so I couldn’t join them, or things like that. They would also give you the silent treatment. You’d ask a question, they’d look you in the face and continue on. It was just unbelievable,” Heath said.

“Truly, I commend our mayor for stepping in a straightening it out. What I hear, for years they’ve lost good people because of dysfunction. If you had seven to nine people telling the librarian or director how to run things every week, how could anyone person persevere under those conditions,” she said.

Reidman said she was not aware of bullying by the board, and that issues such as meeting times likely came from miscommunication.

‘The workplace evolves’ 

Joseph Walker’s will, written in 1890, sets the city’s responsibility for library upkeep, staffing and policy and established the Board of Trustees to make sure that library needs are met.

“As the workplace has evolved, it has been difficult utilize the structure created (in the will.) The language can create challenges,” Bryant said.

A copy of the will provided to the American Journal by the city clerk never refers to a Board of Regents, but does vaguely mention a “committee.” City Attorney Natalie Burns said in a Feb. 8 letter to city officials that the use of “committee” is in the context of one created by the city specifically to “agree, establish and adopt” rules and regulations. The new advisory board satisfies the terms of the will, she said.

Reidman said she wishes the board was reformed rather than scrapped, and thinks that option should have been explored. Foley said that replacement of the Board of Regents with an advisory board is based on what other libraries throughout Maine have done.

“With such a broad restructuring, it made sense to start from scratch given the issues we were facing,” Foley said.

Members of the disbanded Board of Regents and the public are invited to apply for the advisory committee. Appointments will be made following finalization of their policies by the City Council.

“I do not think this library will move forward as it has been without such an instrumental board, as it sits right now, the trustees don’t even know who to address their concerns too. It’s unfortunate,”Fritzsche-Jensen said.

The change is supported by the director of the Library Development Division of the Maine State Library, Foley said.

“The only thing (patrons will) notice (from this change) is that things run better and we are more efficient,” Director Rosemary Bebris said in a recent interview with the American Journal.

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