LOOKING FOR a harrowing tale of drama and suspense, with just the right touch of absurdity?
Look no further than your public library. And I’m not talking in a literary sense; I mean literally.
A page-turning saga has been playing out over the past few months at Live Oak Public Libraries, with more characters than a George RR Martin novel. The bloodshed might be metaphorical and there aren’t any steamy sex scenes, but the plotline is just as convoluted.
Here’s the Cliffs Notes: It all begins in April, with the abrupt departure of the longtime Executive Director—some say he resigned, others say he was pushed out by the library board. His exit is followed fast by the leave of several top-level characters, including the Marketing and Development Director, who was also in charge of the Live Oak Public Libraries Foundation, a separate charitable entity.
This opens a gaping hole at LOPL headquarters on Bull Street, leaving 19 libraries spread out over three counties and 190 employees without leadership. Rumors spread of a coming catastrophe.
In the next chapter, LOPL’s Regional Board of Trustees pulls up the Assistant Director for Public Services as Interim Director. Though he has only been working at the library since January, he is armed with Masters’ degrees in library science and business. Nevertheless, this protagonist is under prepared for the quest as he quickly encounters a long-brewing storm of staff complaints, from accusations of harassment to sloppy payroll practices.
Overwhelmed, he calls upon the State Librarian, who helps secure the services of a Seasoned Library Consultant, who in turn demands independent audits of the library’s financial and human resources departments.
Reports emerge of poor record keeping and financial discrepancies, the most spectacular involving a check for $454,534 mistakenly issued to a former employee.
Auditors also witness garbage bags full of shredded documents, and in a case of recycling gone wild, gift bags stuffed with confetti that contain portions of employee names and Social Security numbers.
The mid-September release of the audits results in the Board of Trustees’ firing of both the Human Resources Director and the department Coordinator amid allegations of intimidation and inappropriate jokes about employees’ appearance.
The audits also implicate the Marketing and Development Director in several counts of financial tomfoolery, including “commingling” money between the Library and the Foundation.(See audits here and here.)
This is where the plot gets real twisty: The week before the audits reports are to be made public, the Chatham County Commission appoints two new members to the library’s Board of Trustees, as is the “right and role” of the Commission.
(Chatham County is responsible for eight spots on the 11-member board; the rest come from Effingham and Liberty, the other two counties that make up the regional library system.)
In what seems like dramatic contrivance, these two new characters are both directly related to the former Marketing and Development Director and the fired HR Director. The latter is also the Superintendent of Public Schools, who resigns emphatically when the conflict of interest is pointed out at an emergency board meeting.
The other, the Marketing and Development Director’s husband, does not attend the meeting. (State law has no stipulations about installing relatives of library employees to the board.)
The very next day, an item appears on the agenda of the next meeting of the County Commission calling for a six-month notice for a termination of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Chatham County and Live Oak Public Libraries.
Online outrage ensues. Calls and emails are placed to individual commissioners expressing opposition to any secession of Chatham County from the library system.
The County Manager clarifies that this is the way to ensure “transparency and accountability” going forward and that the county “has every intention of remaining part of the regional system” that has been in place since 1945.
Current library employees and trustees attend Friday’s interminably long and glacially-paced commission meeting, though no public comment is taken.
The motion passes with only one “nay”—from a commissioner with a criminal record, who grumbles that there’s “something real fishy in this.” (For the AP English students out there, that is an acceptable example of dramatic irony.)
The MOU has been in place since 2004, and representatives from both the County and the Library agree that it needs updating — the County Manager refers to it as “teeth”—to reflect Georgia library law as well as Chatham County employee policy.
But here is where the narrative voices diverge.
Some library employees still hold suspicions of Machiavellian scheming by members of the Commission, who they believe are trying to cover up further evidence of budgetary funny business. On the other shelf, certain Commission members believe calling in the state was a power grab by the Board and the Interim Director.
The audits are also up for dispute. A former library employee calls the HR report “a hatchet job” that amounts to nothing more than a mountain of personal grievances. The County Manager calls it “inflammatory and unprofessional.”
The County Attorney says he refuses to acknowledge the financial findings as valid, referring to them as “alleged audits” and citing major mistakes in the calculations. He says the next step is to conduct a “real audit” by bringing back the library’s ex-Chief Financial Officer, who also resigned last week.
That’s all that’s been written so far. Exciting, no? It could be the first of a pulp paperback series based on local scandals: Retribution in Recorder’s Court, Deputy Sheriff Confessions, and every public school parent’s favorite potboiler, Whatever Happened to School Bus #43?
Now that we’re all on the same page, however, let’s remember that the players involved are not fictional but real people, and reality rarely brings tidy denouements. The true damsels in distress of this story are the libraries themselves, and their well-being must be protected from petty politics and bruised egos.
It’s important to note that there have been no disruptions of library services in spite of the drama, and all branches are providing their usual book lending, free internet, after school programming and cozy refuge (except for poor Ola Wyeth on Factor’s Walk, which has been closed for months.)
Celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the Bull Street Library are in effect, as is planning for the always delightful Savannah Children’s Book Festival on Saturday, Nov. 12 at Forsyth Park.
So how will this story end? The future of the Library ostensibly lies with the Trustees themselves, who are now tasked with hiring a new Executive Director, CFO, Marketing and Development Director, and several more key management positions.
The County Commission still holds the power of who sits on the board, and the upcoming County audit is bound to bring more intrigue.
Taxpayers are going to have to read carefully between the lines to make sure the Library lives happily ever after.
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