This is the second in a series of articles about a rift between the Farmington Hills City Council and the Farmington Community Library Board of Trustees, which has resulted in accusations of politicized board appointments, violations of the Open Meetings Act, and a lack of transparency on both sides. Read the first: LIBRARY BOARD, FARMINGTON HILLS COUNCIL SPAR OVER APPOINTMENTS
Farmington Hills city council member Samantha Steckloff couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
Mayor Ken Massey spoke at length during Monday’s city council meeting about his decision to recommend vocal library board critic Bill Largent to serve on the Farmington Community Library Board of Trustees. The move to replace long-time trustee Bruce Lazar, who had asked to stay on, led two other veteran trustees to resign.
As he shared his view of the events leading up to his decision, Massey said that he recommended Largent for a reason.
“It was my decision, not council’s decision, but we were getting absolutely nowhere with the library,” he said. “The best tool, the only tool we have is to make a change… I knew it was going to be controversial.”
Steckloff said she would never have thought of the appointment process as political until Massey said he wanted to shake things up with the Largent appointment.
“I was in disbelief that this was deliberate,” she said in a Tuesday interview.
Steckloff and her colleague Theresa Rich, who both voted in January for Largent’s appointment to a four-year term, said they had no idea Lazar had asked to be reappointed and were not aware of the reasoning behind Massey’s recommendation. They also did not know whether anyone else had applied for the position.
The appointment process
In fact, council members only receive Massey’s list of recommended appointees. It’s a process enshrined in the city’s charter: The mayor recommends appointees to boards and commissions, and council members vote on his appointees.
Massey said during a Monday interview that when an opening occurs, he talks to staff liaisons about what that committee or commission needs, then looks at applications. Some people who apply ask for specific appointments, and he tries to honor those.
“It’s a pretty standard process of matching the applicant to the need,” Massey said. And though it’s not a “group process,” he added, council members typically contact him if they have concerns about a particular appointee.
Massey said before Monday’s meeting that the library board’s refusal to turn over the requested information wasn’t the primary reason for Largent’s appointment. He described Largent as a voracious reader, someone who has served on a number of boards and commissions, “speaks his mind,” and “has a passion for the library.”
Largent’s interest in the library led him to lobby for the Chapters Cafe. Tensions have built since the coffee shop’s September 2017 closure. Advocates for the coffee shop presented petitions first to the library board and then to Farmington Hills city council members.
Discussions with the library board led city officials in October to ask for copies of the library’s detailed budget and board by-laws. Speaking on behalf of library supporters, Library Director Elyse Streit told officials during Monday’s council meeting that she provides copies of the library’s audit every year.
“We lost 25 percent of our budget during the recession,” she said. “We’ve kept costs down. We have fully funded pension plan. We continually review contracts for cost savings.”
Library board is independent
While city officials had every right to ask for additional information, the 8-member library board (with four appointees from each city) is an independent governing body and had no obligation to respond. Farmington Community Library is the state’s first District Library, established in 1955 through an agreement struck by city officials in Farmington and Farmington Hills.
While the cities originally allocated money for operations, a change in state law in 1989 gave the Library Board taxing authority. According to the library’s website, after city contributions dropped by $650,000 from 2002 to 2005, trustees went to voters, who overwhelmingly approved a 20-year, 1 mill operating levy.
In a February 14, 2018 letter to Farmington Hills City Council, an attorney representing the Library Board noted that the Michigan Court of Appeals “recently rejected a participating municipality’s argument that it had budgetary control over a district library.”
“A participating municipality, like the City, should not be micromanaging the Library Board,” Foster Swift attorney Anne M. Seurynck wrote.
City officials who’ve asked for the information say they don’t want to micromanage. They simply want to see more than the one page budget summary and audit report that the library has submitted.
“I think we need to be able to see a detailed budget,” council member Randy Bruce said Monday. “The city council is ultimately responsible for how the library board spends its money, because if there’s a problem, people will come back to who’s doing the appointments.”
While Streit said the library’s audit report is “clean,” Bruce said clean audits “mean nothing. It’s what you’re actually spending the money on.”
Council members Theresa Rich and Samantha Steckloff said they felt the library board had provided sufficient information. They’re more concerned about information they didn’t receive before and after Largent was appointed.
Next: Council members have suggestions that they say would increase transparency in appointments, without exposing applicants to an uncomfortable process.
Correction: Bill Largent’s criticism was incorrectly described in the original version of this post. He has been a vocal critic of the library board and its procedures.