Vermont Library Remains Shut a Week after Trustees Fire Director

January 12, 2010

The abrupt firing of the director of the Swanton (Vt.) Public Library, followed by the dismissal of the assistant director, has led to what initially appeared to be a walkout by the remainder of the staff and the subsequent closure of the library.

The board of trustees terminated Director Marilyn Barney and Library Assistant Jody Martin January 4. The following day the rest of the staff left in what local media called a show of support for Barney, and the library has remained shut since then. In a letter to Burlington television station WPTZ, the staff claimed the board told Barney, who had been the library director in the town of 6,200 people for 12 years, that she was fired because she was “disrespectful, uncooperative, and [had] a negative impact in her library duties.”

On December 15, the town’s governing selectboard had criticized the library trustees for submitting a budget calling for a 9.2% increase in the total budget but a 15% cut in salaries of existing staff in order to hire a part-time children’s librarian, the St. Albans (Vt.) Messenger reported January 7. The trustees said that no one on staff had expressed interest in performing the children’s-services duties, but Barney disagreed, stating that she could not recall the staff having been asked to do so. In a December 17 letter to the selectboard, the trustees called Barney’s claim that the staff was never asked to perform the duties “a complete fabrication.” The Messenger said that the three library assistants supported Barney’s version of events and added that the library had its most-successful-ever summer reading program for children and teens in 2009.

At an emergency selectboard meeting held January 7 to discuss the library, questions were raised as to whether the trustees’ decision to fire Barney and Martin, as well as previous actions, took place in violation of the state’s Open Meeting Law, the Messenger reported January 8. “If you look at their 2009 minutes, it’s one violation after another,” said Village Trustee Armand Messier. The library trustees declined to attend the meeting on the advice of their attorney.

A two-and-a-half-hour meeting of the library board January 8 failed to resolve the issues, although the trustees agreed to mediation with employees, the Messenger reported January 11. Following a lengthy executive session, the board ratified personnel matters it had discussed behind closed doors, including a decision to reopen the library with volunteers. Residents in attendance pointed out that it was unclear how volunteers could operate the library without a director to supervise them, instruct them in library procedures, and ensure compliance with privacy laws. More than 50 people attended the meeting, and one resident’s call for the trustees to resign prompted widespread applause. The board refused requests by attendees to reopen the library with the previous staff until mediation could occur, and the library remains closed.

The meeting also heard new accounts of why two of the three the remaining staff members had not reported for work following Barney’s dismissal: One said she had been scheduled to be on vacation, and another said she had arranged with Barney to take a sick day. Board Chair Shelley Robtoy said she had attempted to contact the staffers to learn why they were absent, but the two women said they had received no calls from the trustees.

The nearby Highgate Public Library has offered services to Swanton residents who currently have no access to local library facilities, and has extended its hours to serve the additional users.

Phone messages and e-mails from American Libraries to Barney and Robtoy were not returned.



Embracing Change for Continuous Improvement

In a period of transition, libraries must redevelop their services to create loyal customers