Filling the Empty Seat

Back in July, one of the two people I referred to as “sheep” stepped out of that role by going against her voting block and proposing a change to the budget that allowed the library to keep its staff and to keep appropriate open hours for a community the size of the Niles-Maine District. The following month, she sent a letter of resignation to Board President Carolyn Drblik. Ever since, the Board has been split 3-3 on virtually every vote they take, with the result that every motion must fail.

It is now the job of the six remaining trustees (three library advocates (Keane-Adams, Olson, Rozanski), two fiscal hawks (Drblik, Makula) and one sheep (Schoenfeldt) to select the trustee who will fill out Hanusiak’s term until the next election, when the voters get to elect someone for the remaining four years of her term. It boggles the mind a bit to think how these deeply divided trustees can come to agreement, but I am certain they will have some excellent candidates to choose between.

Here’s what you need by law to be a Library District trustee, according to the Illinois Public Library District Act of 1991 (75 ILCS 16/). You need to be:

  • a resident for at least one year
  • a registered voter, or at least that is how I interpret the phrase “qualified elector”
  • not a felon
  • not in arrears on your library taxes 

That’s it. In my opinion as a former library director, to be a library trustee you should also have an unexpired library card; believe that the public library is an asset to the community; and understand that it is an entirely volunteer position. You need to understand that the library board operates as a body and being an officer doesn’t give you special privileges outside of what is specified in the Bylaws. You should be willing to learn about the library and all it offers to the community and not assume that you already know everything.

The tasks of a trustee are to hire and evaluate a qualified administrator, set policy, set the budget, and set the levy. That’s it. And make no mistake–it’s a lot of authority. Through setting policies, library boards decide everything from whether the library will charge fines to what paid holidays the staff gets. Through budget, they can decide how much funding to give each budget area. And choosing a director wisely is in many ways the most important responsibility the board has because having a director who can listen to the staff, the board and the community and make all of the thousands of day-to-day decisions is essential, as well as having a thick enough skin to allow people to speak their minds.

I mention that because new trustees often have the idea that NOW they can finally change the library to be what they want, whether it is having a program (or in the case of the fiscal hawks, getting rid of as many programs as they can without raising communty ire) or buying fewer copies/more copies of bestsellers, or turning the library into a book warehouse and getting rid of those pesky staff members. None of those is the job of a trustee. Running the library is the job of the director, who is a trained and hopefully experienced librarian. It is really helpful when people understand that before becoming trustees! Of course, trustees do have opportunities to make suggestions for good programs, etc. But they don’t get to decide what books to buy or what programs to hold. They don’t pick staff members, either, except their one employee, the director, who is then responsible for all aspects of hiring and evaluating staff.

The job ad seems to strongly favor candidates with business or government experience. That certainly can be useful, but people with social service, literacy, or a deep understanding of the community by working in a local school can also be extremely useful. You can learn to read a budget. But broadening the pool to include people with different perspectives from the current board is vital. It’s very easy to think that your immediate neighbors and fellow churchgoers represent the community when you never hear otherwise.

So the vacancy will be filled by the six trustees from amongst the residents who volunteer to fill that slot. I hope that the passionate public commenters who have showed how much they care by speaking up at meeting after meeting apply. I hope people who live in unincorporated Maine Township apply, because that is a major gap on the too-homogeneous board as I advocated back when there was a previous opening. I hope some of the candidates represent the diversity of the community. I very much hope that the Board isn’t used by anyone as a political stepping stone, which could only lead to further disaster. But difficult as it may be, it is the responsibility of the six trustees to come up with a process for choosing candidates and ultimately to appoint someone. It’s not optional. 

Next up: Determining the levy