A Farmington city council member and a former Farmington Community Library board member have called for the resignation of board Vice President Bill Largent, after someone leaked an email he wrote encouraging friends to support the furlough of library employees.
Images of the email were posted Wednesday in a Facebook group called “Restore the Farmington Community Library.” The group has advocated for Largent’s removal and for returning all staff furloughed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Read the full email: facebook.com/restorefcl/posts/137015448095478
Kristy Cooper of the Library Defense Network, an advocacy organization for libraries, said someone sent her a copy of the email. She declined to name the sender.
Though he did not attend Thursday’s meeting due to a family obligation, Largent confirmed the email came from him. He said he stands by it.
‘Offensive, ignorant, hateful comments’
Addressed to a dozen people, including Farmington Hills council members Ken Massey and Valerie Knol, the email included talking points to counteract criticisms aired during recent library board meetings.
Largent explained that trustees made the April 23 decision to furlough about 80 percent of staff after paying them for six weeks following library system’s COVID-19 closure. He said trustees approved the measure when branch managers were unable to confirm at the board meeting that work was being done.
Trustees also voted to continue paying employee benefits during the furlough.
Public comments opposing the move started at the next remote library board meeting. Since then, Largent wrote, “the rhetoric has gotten louder, stronger and vile. In addition to the 20+ people that speak during public comment, the chat section of the zoom meeting records the most offensive, ignorant, hateful comments.”
Largent wrote that library staff “constantly remind us of how essential they are and how the community demands their terms be met.”
“We have 2 law firms, and both are counseling to stand firm and provide the agitators the option they either acknowledge that as employees they report to the director or they should seek employment elsewhere… In my 45 years in business and community activity, I have never witnessed a group of more self-centered, self absorbed, ignorant and offensive workers,” he wrote.
Suggested comments would ‘shut down the madness’
Largent also criticized board president Jim White, who he said “tried to send a communication to staff apologizing for offending and implying that staff wasn’t working. Jim’s efforts are sincere as he seeks to ease tensions but given the choice, he would bring all staff back now and pay them. I derailed that communication for now, but am working 10 hours a day to block multiple fronts.”
Mobilizing with suggested comments that support the furlough and chastise employees, Largent wrote, would “shut down this madness” and allow the board to get back to work reopening the library, which includes addressing more than $1 million in deferred maintenance. He mentioned a survey underway that asks the community to share ideas for improvements.
“This was and is needed because during my 25 months on the board we have seen a steady decline in utilization while costs (especially payroll) have increased,” he wrote. “Our budget this year is $6.7 million of which 64% will go to labor costs.”
He said the staff’s assertion that they were not invited to participate in the evaluation process “is a valid complaint.” However, he added, “The answer is that staff has worked to derail, delay or ignore every effort of the board that would change the status quo, so we didn’t engage them.”
Thursday’s public comment
About two dozen speakers participated in Thursday’s public comment. Most criticized Largent and asked for an expansion of services and for staff to return.
Patron Kelly Goldberg said the statements made in Largent’s email “revealed an attitude that is directly at odds with the stated goals of the library board.”
“There was animosity, there was hostility,” she said. “There were insulting remarks about the library staff, which is largely female.”
Former library employee Daniel Patton said Largent “does not have an understanding of how things function in the public sector.” The email comments were “not in the spirit of supporting the community or providing the best service to the community, nor are they in the spirit of supporting the staff.”
Farmington Hills resident and former city council member Richard Lerner, one of the email recipients, complimented the board and pointed out that Largent is one of eight trustees and “does not control the board.”
Lerner pointed to the repair of hazardous conditions in the Farmington and Farmington Hills buildings not addressed under the previous library director as examples of “how the change on the board impacted the library in a positive way.”
He also supported the furlough. “I don’t understand why (library staff members) were paid six weeks when they were not working. I’d like to see them all come back, but you have to do it safely.”
Library staff: We worked during shutdown
Several library staff members said they were working during the six-week shut down and had documentation to prove it. Mary Reading talked about her work with outreach to seniors and doing some programming at senior communities.
Deb Hemmye said among other things, employees were conducting virtual programming, attending webinars, and reviewing library materials.
“I’m so tired of hearing this lie that we were just sitting around, and that’s why we got furloughed,” she said. “We were working from the day the library closed.”
Calls for resignation
Jessica Bomarito, who recently resigned from the board, said in her first discussion with Largent, he “gloated about successfully leading an effort to block a library millage… and how if the library didn’t proceed in the way he thought was the best way forward, he would do this again at the next millage.”
Bomarito asked director Riti Grover to quickly bring back all furloughed staff members and asked trustees to speak out against the sentiments in Largent’s email.
“He must resign his position in order to start the healing, and really it’s going to be a long road,” she said.
Farmington council member Maria Taylor in a Friday social media post said “turning a blind eye” to Largent’s behavior “is simply enabling it to continue. Farmington deserves better.”
“I call on Mr. Largent to resign from the library board immediately due to conduct unbefitting of his office,” she wrote.
Farmington and Farmington Hills city councils appoint library trustees, but under Michigan’s District Library Establishment Act, only the governor can remove a trustee. During Thursday’s board meeting, Sunflour Bakehaus co-owner Jeff Pavlik announced a postcard campaign to get Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s attention.
Library supporters, and especially children, are invited to pick up a postcard at the bakery, 33250 Grand River, and share a message of support for the library. The Pavlik-Burns family has offered to cover the cost of mailing the cards. (Learn more here: facebook.com/SunFlourBakehaus/posts/10157667038091538.)
Board president’s statement
Speaking at the beginning of Thursday’s meeting, board president Jim White, a librarian for Farmington Public Schools, said initial results of a community survey indicate “the community loves the library and the community loves our staff.”
“I share those feelings,” he said. “I deeply admire the professionalism of Farmington Community Library staff and the service they give.”
While the reasons may have been sound, White said, the furlough “was not a compassionate act… The cost to staff and patrons has been too high.” Before responding to comments, he added, “I have to look at my own actions, and I know that we have to repair relationships between the board and staff.”
He urged the community to be patient and not blame staff members. “I also want you to be patient with the board, and the board has to earn that… I promise you we will do that. We want to bring back the best version of the Farmington Community Library that we can at this moment.”
Farmington Voice contacted Largent for comment; he declined until he has listened to a recording of Thursday’s meeting.