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Robin Diener, the director of the Ralph Nader-backed D.C. Library Renaissance Project, packed a basement room at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library with supporters tonight and trounced the incumbent to become the president of the MLK Library Friends.
The election held unusual drama for a contest for an unpaid library advocacy position. LaToya Thomas, who founded the group two years ago and has served as its president since, had accused Diener of forging membership application forms in order to register scores of allies and win the vote. Diener countered that she only created the forms because Thomas wasn’t providing her with the applications she requested, and that Thomas has been an ineffective and “tyrannical” president.
It could also have unusually big consequences. In her work with Nader on the Library Renaissance Project, Diener has strenuously opposed the planned mixed-use redevelopment of the West End Library, in keeping with Nader’s opposition to public-private library partnerships and despite the support of every neighborhood group for the project. With MLK also facing an overhaul that’s expected to include private uses to defray the cost of development, the Library Renaissance Project has begun expressing its opposition to such a move. Now that she controls the MLK Library Friends—-a group that’s likely to be treated as the official representative of MLK supporters and have standing at hearings on the redevelopment before the Zoning Commission and other bodies—-she’ll have a much larger say over the library’s future.
And she’ll have allies to help her. Mary Alice Levine, the former president of the Friends of the Tenley-Friendship Library, who sent out an email yesterday urging people to vote for Diener, was elected treasurer. Following the vote tally, Nick Burger, the incumbent vice president who ran unopposed for re-election, announced that he was withdrawing from the group’s leadership because “the organization’s going in a different direction.” Katja Hering, re-elected as secretary without opposition, likewise said she’d have to reconsider whether she wants to serve.
Typically, meetings of the MLK Library Friends have only about five participants, according to several people who have attended those meetings. Tonight, more than 50 people packed the small basement room, mostly supporters of Diener who joined the group for the first time.
In order to vote, people had to be members of the group, which involved filling out a form and paying $10 in dues. Before the meeting, Diener manned a table in the library lobby where she helped people register. Registrations continued to be submitted throughout the meeting.
In the end, Diener defeated Thomas by a 38-12 margin.
“With the turnout, I’m not surprised at how things happened,” Thomas said after the meeting. She does not plan to have any further involvement with the group, given her disagreement with Diener’s focus on opposing a mixed-use redevelopment. “I’m not convinced the group is going to go in a good direction,” she says.
Diener says her primary objective is to “work on a public discussion about the future of the Martin Luther King Library including public-private partnerships and financing.” Her secondary goals include addressing homelessness and literacy and building the group’s membership.
The meeting was contentious from the start, as Diener repeatedly interrupted Thomas to make parliamentary objections. Oliver Hall, the lawyer for the Library Renaissance Project and for Nader, likewise spoke up to object to the procedure for write-in candidacies. Chris Otten, another member of the Library Renaissance Project, was also present; Nader was not.
The task faced by the D.C. Public Library and the architects and developers who will try to renovate MLK has always been daunting, given the scope of the project and the historic status of the building. Now that Diener and her allies will control at least half, and potentially all, of the MLK Library Friends, it could be that much more difficult.
Photo via D.C. Public Library