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Nothing says drama like an election for the leadership of a library volunteer group. Beg to differ? Then take a look at the battle that’s shaping up over tonight’s contest for the presidency of the MLK Library Friends.
LaToya Thomas, the current president of the group—-which advocates for programming, literacy efforts, and attraction of D.C. residents to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library—-is expecting a challenge from Robin Diener, the director of the Ralph Nader-founded and funded D.C. Library Renaissance Project. Accusations of mismanagement and fraud are flying, and the election could very well become a referendum on the idea of a mixed-use renovation of the central library.
Diener, Nader, and the Library Renaissance Project have been fighting the planned redevelopment of the West End Library into a mixed-use building with residences and retail. They argue that the project is a giveaway to the developer and that private uses have no place in public library buildings. But the project has the support of every neighborhood group nearby, and many neighbors have complained about the Library Renaissance Project’s involvement.
Now, with MLK gearing up for an overhaul that is expected to involve a mix of uses, the Library Renaissance Project has begun making noises about opposing such a project. If elected president tonight, Diener could use the MLK Library Friends as a platform to stand against a public-private redevelopment.
“Everything about her platform has been focusing on the building effort,” says Thomas. “And that’s not what the group was founded on at all. Our whole stance has been we’re just like everyone else in the community and we’re receptive to whatever community outreach process the library undertakes.”
Diener says she’s not officially running, but if she receives a nomination, she will accept it. Still, there’s something of a campaign underway on her behalf. Mary Alice Levine of the Friends of the Tenley-Friendship Library sent an email yesterday to about 30 people with the subject line “Robin Diener for President of MLK Library Friends.” The recipients include several Ward 3 residents who have been vocal opponents of proposed development projects and changes to the zoning update aimed at rolling back some of the car-friendly policies from the 1958 code.
“Robin is opposed to renovating the historic MLK Library building by means of a partnership with a developer that would introduce non-library uses to DC’s central library building,” Levine wrote in the email. She said she would join the MLK Library Friends at the door tonight—memberships cost $10—and then vote for Diener, and encouraged others to do the same.
Thomas accuses Diener of creating a fraudulent membership application for the group and distributing it to her friends in order to win support in the vote. “She basically forged a membership application for the group and signed up a bunch of her friends as members,” Thomas says. “She was not authorized to provide this membership form. She’s not a board member.” Thomas says that when she informed people who signed up with Diener’s form that it was not the real membership application, some of them asked for their money back, while others expressed surprise but still asked to become members. (They were allowed in.)
Diener denies that she did anything inappropriate. “I wouldn’t use the word ‘forge,'” she says. “I asked her many times how we could get a membership application [and Thomas did not provide one]. At the time there was nothing online. And I did take the step of creating a form so that people could join. And as soon as I did that, she produced a form.”
Thomas says the group has never been this politically charged before, and she’s tempted to step away. “I’ve been dealing with Robin issues for the last several months, and in the last two months it’s gotten out of hand,” she says. “There’s only so much I’m willing to put up with.”
But she won’t step aside if it means allowing Diener to become president. “I don’t want Robin to become president by any means,” she says. “And I’m willing to do as much as I can to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Diener, for her part, says Thomas has been an ineffective president and objects to her stance that discussion of the library redevelopment is not a central part of the group’s mission. “Ms. Thomas has repeatedly told people that there will not be discussion of the future of Martin Luther King Library, of public-private partnerships, of the design of the building, of financing,” Diener says. “As far as I’m concerned, she’s not aware what a friends group is for. I object to a closed process and a tyrannical friends group president who says what we will and will not do.”
Photo of MLK Library via D.C. Public Library