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Threat of lawsuits loom as library moves ahead
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MADEIRA BEACH – With its financial difficulties at least temporarily resolved, the Gulf Beaches Public Library moved ahead with plans to hire a new director.

The library board met Monday in a generally upbeat session that included issues related to the director’s hiring, bonus pay for the interim director and business manager and other matters concerned with the library’s future operations.

Board chairman Nick Simons noted that Treasure Island had agreed to rejoin the five community consortium that supports the library. The agreement is only for one year, and at a much reduced rate. But it does ease the financial crisis that had threatened the library’s existence.

Lurking in the background however was the threat of additional legal troubles relating to recent staff reductions.

Simons disclosed a letter from an attorney representing Harriet Thompkins, the recently terminated assistant director/reference librarian. The board has also heard from an attorney representing former library director Jan Horah. Both Horah and Thompkins were let go in cost reduction moves made last month.

Both letters allege wrongful termination of their clients and threaten legal action unless an agreeable settlement can be reached. Legal fights and settlements involve money, large amounts in some cases, and the library can ill afford additional financial burdens at this time.

In the latest action, attorney Craig L. Berman alleges Thompkins’ termination was based on her race. “(The library) has terminated its top two officials, both of whom happen to be black,” Berman writes. He also charges that secret meetings were held leading up to the termination in violation of the state Sunshine Law.

“A jury will have substantial questions about whether my client’s race was a motivating factor that caused the Chairman to take this particular action,” Berman states in the letter. The letter invites a resolution of the issue “before legal proceedings are commenced in Federal and State courts to rectify the violations of the Sunshine Law and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

The board decided to consult their attorney about holding an “executive session” not open to the public to discuss the legal challenges. A closed-door meeting would allow members to speak their minds on the subject, board member Denise Adis said.

On a more positive note, interim director Travis Sherman said the public has been very supportive of the changes made. “A very few complaints” have been received about the reduction in operating hours, she noted.

“The library is holding steady. Things have settled down quite a bit,” Sherman said.

The board will move ahead in its search for a new library director.

Qualifications for the job were discussed, and Sherman was invited to write an ad for the position. The opening will be posted at online library-related sites where no fees are charged. The possibility of advertising the position in the New York Times also will be considered, based upon costs. A minimum starting salary of $50,000 was agreed upon.

A committee to review applicants was established. Members suggested were Pinellas Public Library Consortium director Mary Brown, Madeira Beach City Manager W.D. Higginbotham, business owner and library board member Patricia Hubbard and North Redington Beach Mayor Bill Queen. All agreed to serve except Queen who still needed to be contacted.

Another committee will review the status of the interlocal agreement between the five communities that support the library. It will be made up of elected officials from each community. That group will be charged with coming up with a new agreement that will provide “a fresh start,” Simons said.

The committee’s work should eliminate some of the disconnects and confusion that has occurred over the present interlocal pact, board member Sharon Danielsen said. “We’ll have everybody on the same page, with all the signatures and deadlines in place,” she said.

In another move aimed at stabilizing the library, the board agreed to give interim director Sherman and business manager Stanley Silverstein 25 percent bonus payments over their current salaries during the transition period. The additional payments will be made retroactive to when the two assumed their added responsibilities in November.

Also, the board agreed to hire the city of Madeira Beach to provide the library with accounting and payroll services. The action was viewed as a cost-saving move, but its biggest benefit, according to Simons, is to give a member city oversight of the library’s financial operations.

Danielsen said additional areas need to be looked at where the library “can do things more efficiently and effectively.”
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