By David Scribner
July 5, 2011
When a political fray becomes nasty, petty, brutish and unkind – to rephrase Thomas Hobbes — the better part of valor, sometimes, is to withdraw gracefully from the field of battle.
That is the tact Great Barrington’s Director of Libraries Anne Just has taken, announcing her retirement as of August, in the wake of the dust-up between the new leadership of the Library Board of Trustees, bent on reasserting its authority over library personnel, and Town Manager Kevin O’Donnell whose post the charter designates as the supervisor of town departments, the library being one of them.
When Karin Beebe last month became president of the Board of Library Trustees – a rank that had before her ascension been called chairman – she informed the Board of Selectmen at a June 13 selectmen’s meeting that the Library Trustees intended to assume the authority for the hiring and firing of the library director.
In response, the selectmen reminded her that it would take a vote of the annual Town Meeting and an arduous review, plus an act of the state Legislature, to modify the town charter in order to resolve the differences between the Library Trustees’ charter and the town’s.
This matter could have been framed as an advocacy for an independent library system, a nonpartisan bastion of recorded wisdom governed by an elected board of trustees, insulated from the influences of town politics in order to protect the integrity of the library’s collection.
Unfortunately, such high-mindedness has not yet to become a factor in the discussion. So far, it is simply an argument about the exercise of power and who’s entitled to it, based upon an inconsistency between the library’s and the town’s charters.
Of course, in any future scenario, whether the library is regarded as a town department or not, the library would still rely upon the town government for funding.
During her presentation to the selectmen, Beebe kept focusing on the right of the trustees to fire and hire the director, as if there were something about the current director that needed correcting, if not replacement. She insisted that as an elected board the Library Trustees should enjoy administrative independence, and she pointed out that library boards in other towns operate as independent entities, an arrangement that is endorsed by the state Library Commission.
Still, Beebe’s husband George had earlier announced to the local press – although not before the select board — that a major purpose of the trustees’ push for self-governance was the removal of the library director.
In reply to Karin Beebe’s remarks, selectmen forcefully reminded Beebe, much to the library president’s frustration, that it would take at least a year, possibly two, to alter the town charter, if that were the course a charter review committee ultimately recommended.
Selectman Alana Chernila said she was “shocked” by Beebe’s approach and attitude.
At the board’s June 27 meeting selectmen set September 27 as a session to review charter alternatives. And, with Karin Beebe watching, former Library Trustee Karen Smith challenged the board to make the review process as open as possible.
“I trust there will be opportunity for public input,” she declared, “and I’m wondering whether there shouldn’t be a new election for library trustees in view of the potential charter change.”
For her part, Just has taken the high road – and with good reason. Other librarians have high regard for her abilities.
“Great Barrington was lucky to have her,” commented Sheffield librarian Nancy Hahn. “She’s brilliant and very talented.”
In a prepared statement, Just noted that in the four-and-a-half years she has guided the library system, she has upgraded the skills of the staff and the quality of the collection, made the libraries warmer and more welcoming, and defended the Ramsdell Library against a citizen-led movement to close it as a cost-saving measure.
“This is my decision, and that’s their [the Trustees’] issue to work out,” she said during a conversation with Red Crow. “I want to be professional. I have no big projects on deck and it’s a good time to retire. But I’ve made a lot of friends here, and I will be volunteering one day a week at the Sheffield library and in the Lenox library.”
The library trustees will meet at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 5, at the Mason Library to address the issue of Anne Just’s retirement – and how to select a successor.