The Farmington Community Library main branch is offering curbside pickup.

The Farmington Community Library main branch is offering curbside pickup.

File photo by Jonathan Shead

Hills mayor, council discuss possible transition to elected library board

By: Jonathan Shead | Farmington Press | Published August 11, 2020


FARMINGTON/HILLS — Controversy has once again found its way to the Farmington Community Library.

An outcry from greater Farmington community members and library staff against the FCL board of directors’ decision to furlough a majority of staff April 24 has now made its way to the City Council.

Residents have called upon them to fix the problems they believe are stymying the library’s operations amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

After listening to more than an hour of public comment July 27 from community members citing concerns with furloughs, decreased services to the community, and taking aim at one individual board member they believe is at the root of the issues — more than 1,000 people have signed a petition for Trustee Bill Largent to be removed from office — the Farmington Hills City Council was left in a bind.

The petition cites that Largent has created an environment of  “combative and hostile actions that have created a toxic setting and not only hinder, but actively destroy the ability of staff and the library, as a whole, to offer adequate services to their patrons.”

Largent said that since his appointment to the library board in February 2018, he and other current board members have been working to bring the library into the 21st century, which he said has been underscored by a lot of changes.

“It’s human nature. People are sometimes opposed to change, but every one of these changes is designed to position the library moving forward. I think that’s the basis for some of the opposition,” he said. “I’m looking at the results we’re seeing and I think once the community gets a sense of the improvements that this will pretty much go away.”

Largent said he is listening to the community’s concerns. He said that as of Aug. 10, 80% of full-time staff have been brought back from being furloughed.

“I’ve made it a point that I’m going to choose my words more carefully moving forward, but I stand by the actions of this board and everything that (we’ve) done.”

Farmington Hills Mayor Vicki Barnett believes the issues at FCL can’t be pared down to one person.

“It’s not one individual causing all the problems, there are significant issues to go around. The sooner we can address them all, the better off the Farmington Community Library system will be.”


Handcuffed, council discusses alternatives
The Michigan Library Act of 1989 “handcuffs council in a lot of ways,” City Council member Ken Massey said at the council’s July 27 meeting. According to that law, local government officials are barred from interfering in any way, aside from ensuring taxpayer dollars are being spent appropriately, with the independent library board. Once appointed by the mayor of Farminton or Farmington Hills, library board members can only be removed by a term expiration or the governor of Michigan.

That gave Barnett a thought — what would be the steps and legal processes it would take to transition from an appointed library board to an elected board, which would allow voters and taxpayers more authority to ensure board members are being held accountable.

That’s a scenario that Barnett said she’s interested in looking into.

“As we move forward in this, you will see Farmington Hills and Farmington moving toward a discussion of moving to an elected library board that can then be held accountable to the voters,” she said July 27. “I know this has been a very tough situation for everybody on all sides of this, and we want to do the best things for our citizens as well as the people who work for the library and who donate their time to serve on the library board.

“I hope you understand the position we as City Council are in. I wish I could give you different news, but at this point, we as a City Council cannot interfere.”

While Barnett acknowledged the deliberations surrounding such a conversion are preliminary — she’s unsure even if her entire council is on board — Council members Jackie Boleware and Massey both said they supported looking into it.

“I do kind of think an elected board where the taxpayers have their elected officials to talk directly to would be a potential strength here,” Massey said, “but we need to stop the finger pointing. … We need to support them and get them moving forward. Give them the criticism and constructive comments, but work with the library board to move them forward.”

Farmington Mayor Sara Bowman said she’s also open to the discussion.

“I would like to hear what our options would be, mostly because I think it’s time we start re-evaluating how this board is appointed, because if we keep doing the same thing over and over, we’re going to keep getting the same results, and the results over the last few years don’t seem to be meshing well,” she said, adding that it would be premature of her to speak on how the rest of the council feels as well.

Kristy Cooper, of Ypsilanti, who works on library activism for the Library Defense Network, said during public comment that in her experience, more issues tend to arise with an appointed board rather than an elected one. Despite neither City Council being able to interfere, Cooper also called on Council members to take action where they could.

“One thing that can help is publicly calling for their resignations,” she said. “Pressure from city officials is an important, meaningful gesture for the sake of the library, staff and community. … The damage that has been done is going to take a lot of work to undo. The sooner (it) can be stopped, the sooner the library can be restored to the community gem you all know it can be.”

Largent said that he would be worried about library board positions becoming “a springboard for people who have political ambitions” if the two cities were to move to an election process.


Appointments and next steps
The Farmington Community Library currently has three open seats — two representing Farmington and one representing Farmington Hills. Farmington City Council conducted candidate interviews Aug. 5. Barnett said July 27 she planned to wait until after the August primary election to begin looking through applicants for a possible appointment.

“I really would like to see somebody who has a long-term vision for what this board can do, what they can contribute and how they can work with the director. I would like to see someone who might be interested in perhaps bringing in some third-party facilitator. Someone who could help them get back on track and help them find their common ground, so they can move forward in a more productive way, perhaps, to work through their issues,” Bowman said of the criteria she’ll be looking for in Farmington candidates.

Currently, the deliberations and ultimately decision whether or not to move to an elected library board of directors still falls into councilmembers’ hands in both cities.

Farmington Hills Assistant City Manager Gary Mekjian said Hills Council members haven’t gotten to the point of seeking administrative and legal staff’s help in pursuing the topic further.

“Council would typically discuss something like this at a study session, and we just haven’t had study sessions because of this whole COVID-19 issue. If this drags on longer, which we’re anticipating these remote meetings going well into the fall, I think at some point they’re going to have to have some sort of virtual study session. That’s up to the discretion of the mayor and how the council wants to handle that.”

Farmington Hills City Attorney Steve Joppich said July 27 that he would have an update for council “on the statutory and legal procedures” necessary to convert from an appointed to an elected library board within a week or two following the meeting.

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