Although some officials expressed concerns, Farmington Hills city council members on Monday unanimously appointed Danette Duron-Willner to fill a vacant seat on the Farmington Community Library Board of Trustees.
Mayor Vicki Barnett recommended Duron-Willner to fill the unexpired term of Elizabeth Rae-O’Donnell, who resigned in June. She will serve through February 1, 2023.
With the Farmington city council’s recent appointments, the board is at full strength for the first time in about three months, having lost three members due to family concerns and relocation. This comes as the library is in the middle of a phased reopening plan. Both the Farmington and Farmington Hills buildings closed in mid-March to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
A 2019 council candidate
Duron-Willner, at attorney, ran unsuccessfully for city council in 2019, and Mayor Pro Tem Valerie Knol worried that she might run again in 2021 and may win, as has happened with other council members.
“Realistically, there’s a higher chance that someone who just ran and did well would run again next year,” she said.
Knol said council members have often discussed that the library board, under Michigan’s District Library Establishment Act, does not operate with council oversight. City officials appoint trustees, but the board operates independently, with a $6.7 million annual budget funded by a voter-approved millage.
“Does this person really want to join the board because they care about the library and want to stay on it for years to come, or because they want to increase their profile?” Knol said. She added that an appointee interested in running for another office “may make a different decision because she wants to please a certain constituency.”
Council member Michael Bridges shared Knol’s concern, but said he would support the nominee unless there were ethical concerns.
Former mayor and now council member Ken Massey said that Duron-Willner had attended several library board meetings while she was a candidate, speaking critically of the board during public comment. He said Duron-Willner’s comments about the library at a city council meeting “came across as a little bit disparaging and came across as a disruptive nature.”
Massey said the library board had started to coalesce and work on long-standing, critical maintenance and financial issues when COVID-19 hit.
“I’m worried because past performance is often the indicator of future behavior,” he said. “Everybody needs to stop and look at the behavior as it is affecting the goal.”
Barnett said she had spoken with library trustees and staff, along with community members, including what she described as “an hour-long conversation” with Joy Montgomery. The former trustee represented Farmington until she moved to Farmington Hills earlier this year.
Library trustees, some community members, and Massey supported her for the position.
Referring to recent controversies over the furlough of library employees and a leaked email written by library board vice president Bill Largent, Barnett said that staff members had lost confidence in their employer, the public had lost confidence in the board, and “the very underpinning of the library millage is being threatened for renewal in 2024.”
‘This is what is needed for the board’
“I can assure you, my bringing Danette Duron-Willner forward has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with her ability and her work on an every-day basis to bring staff and business leaders and communities together,” she said.
In response to concerns about Duron-Willner’s political aspirations, Barnett pointed to the case of TR Carr, a former Community Health Commission appointee who also ran in 2019 for a council seat.
“He lost, and not one of my council members brought up that he was too ambitious when I appointed him to the Economic Development Commission,” she said. “It is unfair to require someone to commit to any terms that are not required in our ordinances.”
“This is not a political choice,” she reiterated. “This is what is needed for the board.”
When it came time to vote, Massey asked the community “to take a deep breath and step back and let the board of directors do what they need to do.”
“With that, and your assurances about my concerns,” he said to Barnett, “I will vote yes.”
Knol also voted yes, adding, “Hopefully my concerns will be proven wrong.”
The Farmington Community Library Board of Trustees’ next regular meeting is slated September 10.