It was supposed to be a coming-out party for new D.C. Public Library director Ginnie Cooper, who started work last month. Instead, the Aug. 9 meeting of the library system’s Board of Trustees turned into a showdown with citizens at which—according to several observers—Cooper, board president John W. Hill, and board member Richard Levy all lost their tempers.
The catalyst for the confrontation was a series of five questions posed by Peter Fay, the former head librarian of the Library of Congress’s Performing Arts Library at the Kennedy Center and a panelist on WETA’s “Around Town.” But the tension started hours before the trustees convened at the Chevy Chase Library’s meeting room, when Hill privately informed Richard Huffine that he was no longer a member of the board.
Huffine is the president of the Federation of Friends of the D.C. Library, an umbrella organization for the groups that raise money, volunteer their time, and otherwise aid their neighborhood libraries. The library trustees’ by-laws make the president of the Federation of Friends a non-voting ex officio member.
Barring him from the board is “blatantly illegal,” said Huffine. “It’s against their by-laws.” He also argued that because the decision to exclude him was not made by the board at an open forum, it is a violation of D.C.’s public meeting law. Huffine called Hill’s action “shocking and inappropriate.”
In an interview today, Hill responded that friends’ president’s position is in the by-laws, but altering that provision is “not a violation of the law. The library board can at any time change those by-laws.”
Hill and Cooper had the meeting under control for much of its three-hour length. In front of an audience packed with library employees, Hill presented a wrapped gift to Ellen Flaherty, the interim director who presided over a round of firings just before Cooper arrived. (Flaherty didn’t open the box in public.) A little later, Cooper announced that her official title is “chief librarian of D.C.,” not director or executive director.
The temperature increased significantly when the public comment period arrived. Of Fay’s questions, the ones that seemed to most upset Cooper, Hill, and Levy were about the library’s inadequate literacy efforts and its apparent interest in exploiting the system’s real estate holdings. “Ginnie Cooper took great umbrage” at the literacy query, Fay said.
Cooper responded that the library has six literacy centers around the city, says Huffine. But he noted that the library doesn’t measure the effectiveness of those centers. “She counts success as having dubbed a branch a literacy center, but there’s really nothing going on in that literacy center.”
Fay calls the real-estate question “deliberately provocative on my part” and says Hill responded with “fiery glances” and “stinging remarks directed specifically to me, that he felt that this had been a direct insult, etc. etc.”
Cooper, Hill, and Levy’s reaction “quickly degenerated into a series of ad hominem arguments, as if they were trying to make it pointedly about me,” Fay continues. “If they want to do that, fine.” But, he notes, his questions encouraged other people to challenge the trustees.
“I was very upset with what he said,” acknowledged Hill of Fay’s remarks. “I took strong issue with his statements about what the board had done, and who the board is listening to. I strongly disagreed with him, but…I didn’t raise my voice. I talked very directly. If people want to call that ‘angry,’ then so be it.”
Among the familiar complaints about the library system’s inadequate facilities, collections, and services, the subject of Huffine’s removal also surfaced. “People were so stunned by that, and that it should be handled in such a cavalier fashion really took people’s breath away,” said Fay. “People were quite frankly appalled, and said so.” Among the people who protested Huffine’s removal was Martin Carmody, vice president of the Northeast Library’s friends group.
“Martin asked us to reconsider it,” Hill said on Friday, “and the board agreed that it would reconsider it.”
One other issue was the possibility (reported last week in the Washington Business Journal) that the National Geographic Society might have designs on the same chunk of the old convention center site where the trustees plan to build a new central library. Fay described Hill’s statements on the possible rivalry between National Geographic and the proposed library as contradictory and confusing.
“It was clear that there have been many discussions within the board of trustees and the powers that be over the fate of [the proposed central library site], even at the same time they’re trying to keep a unified front about how everything is fully on track and going just the way we want it to go,” Fay said. “That was a conflict they hoped no one was going to notice.”
After the meeting ended, Fay said, Hill “stormed out” of the building. “He was visibly upset. Clearly, the meeting had not gone as he hoped it would. What was supposed to be a lovefest for Ginnie Cooper turned out to be far more rancorous.”
Hill denies that he “stormed out at the end of the meeting. That’s absolutely a lie.” Hill contacted another person who was at the meeting, who then called me to say that the board president did not “storm out.” That person declined to be publicly identified.
For all the disagreement over what happened, Fay says, “I don’t think anyone got truly unpleasant.” And he suggested that a little friction is better than a process in which there’s no public discussion. He suspects, however, that “Hill sees it the other way: ‘If I could rid of these pesky people, I could get something done here.’”