A Trojan Horse: Queens Library Reform Bill
In Whose Best Interest Is This ... Really?
This report goes behind the fanfare and political posturing that have gone on the past few months, and looks at the issues surrounding legislation that is currently working its way through the New York legislature. It also compares the legislation to a similar prior bill which was passed into law less than a year ago. And ultimately we provide rationale for intelligently asking whether this legislation is a political play or good for the Queens Library and its constituents. The report contains links to our Queens Opinion section which contains the comments of two informed sources who have been following the controversy from different vantage points.
Click here to read our report on the Queens Library Reform Bill: Quality & Controversy.
A Trojan Horse: Queens Library Reform Bill
Politics For Control One Of Nation's Top Libraries - What's Really Going On?
Queens Library Conflict Brief Summary Of Events: January - March 2014
The story broke in late January in the NY Daily News detailing the Queens Library President's wages [$392,000], the model of his company car which cost [$37,000], that he had spent over $100,000 remodeling his office [it had been over 30 years since its last update], and that he had a second consulting gig from which the take home pay was in the neighborhood of $190,000 in 2013.
It's worth noting that the Queens Library System has an operating budget in excess of $100 million per annum, between 1,000 - 2,000 employees, and the Queens Library President's compensation is in line with the pay of his non-profit, non-governmental peers. It's also worth mentioning that the Queens Library is recognized by its peers to be one of the best libraries in the city and nation. The Queens Library CEO's compensation appears to be reflective of the adage, that if you want an organization to perform well, you have to pay competitive wages to attract talented management.
In the photo at right is an after school educational program I attended at the Queens Library in Sunnyside.
Queens Library President's Second Job - Impetus For Controversy
One of the main issues seemed to be related to the Queens Library President's second gig. The Business Manager of the second organization, Frank Marino of the Elmont Union Free School District, is also head of a firm that has won 15 contracts worth about $40 million in Queens Library remodeling contracts since 2008. This is out of a total of 38 contracts available. It's worth noting that in 2010 one of the remodeling bidders went bankrupt. Both the FBI and the DOI [NYC Department of Investigations] have been looking into the matter since February / March 2014. Both Galante and Marino say there hasn't been any wrongdoing and that Marino's firm, Advanced Consulting Corporation, has won the bids because they've been the most competitive bidder.
Unions Upset Over Queens Library Use Of Non-Union Labor
The Epoch Times reported that the Queens Library has suffered about $17 million in NYC budget cutbacks since 2008. To maintain library services, the Queens Library contracted some non-union labor for cleaning services to save a half million per year [why pay $15 per hour when you can pay $35 per hour?]. The Epoch Times proffered the notion that the Queens government officials most on the attack are union-supported, and hence they are using this as an opportunity to replace Galante. That's one theory.
Queens Library Enacts Governance Reforms - April 2014
The Queens Library enacted governance reforms in April 2014 [see Op Ed Queens]. But this didn't stop the move by Queens Government officials from pushing forward legislation at the state level to amend the charter of the Queens Library calling for similar reforms, but going one step further.
Queens Government Officials Initiate Charter Revision Legislation
The Queens Borough President in tandem with seven NYS Senators submitted legislation at the state level calling for charter reforms to the Queens Library. Generally the reforms have already been legislated in the Non-Profit Revitalization Act of 2013 and / or in the Queens Library governance reforms - with one important exception. The power to sack Trustees without any real due process. By real due process, I mean a process that includes checks and balances in the process, which is only possible by the inclusion of multiple independent decision-makers.
The issue with this change is that it's somewhere between possible to likely that the Queens Library system will lose its independence as an organization, and become a part of the political machine. And given it's a top performing library system, it's also likely that it's performance will not improve. The legislation appears to be a trojan horse in the sense that it appears beneficial, while in fact, it is not.
Click to view the Queens Opinion section for what professional librarians from around the nation and around NYC think about this proposed legislation.
In Queens & New York State Are You Innocent Until Proven Guilty?
We had questioned one of the bill sponsors as to why he had focused the legislation so narrowly on the Queens Library. In general the response was someting about reining in excess spending by the Queens Library President [see statement further down]. Yet the Queens Library operates within its budget and to date no wrong doing has been found / announced by no less than the FBI and the NYC Department of Investigations. The investigation has not been completed, so I began pondering, "is one is still innocent until proven guilty in Queens?".
NYS Non-Profit Revitalization Act - July 2013
In July of 2013 the New York legislature passed a law providing governance guidance for New York State non-profits. The intent of the law is to provide greater transparency so that New York taxpayers can see how the taxpayer money government officials give to specific entities is spent. In a nutshell it calls for a set of best practices to provide uniform, and in some cases, more transparency than in the past. See image below with a summary of the law.
Redundancy To The Non Profit Revitalization Act Of 2013
The new bill introduced to govern the Queens Library seemed to have a lot of redundancies with the Non-Profit Revitalization Act . And, as I understand things, the Queens Library has implemented the reforms called for by the Non-Profit Revitalization Act. See our Queens Opinion section which contains a notice of the reforms as well as other comments on the topic.
This is a summary of the Non-Profit Revitalization Act of 2013 which contains a number of provisions similar in kind to the charter revision of the Queens Library.
Is Narrowly Focused Legislation An Uneven Application Of The Law?
Given the Non-Profit Revitalization Act covered non-profit governance, I inquired about the possibility that this legislation appears to be an uneven application of the law, which is against the law. There are numerous non-profits that the city and state fund, which Queens government officials have not included in the bill. What was the point of the Non-Profit Revitalization Act of 2013? Are they going to revise all of the other non-profit charters one by one? If not, couldn't one challenge the legislation as an uneven application of the law?
I was given this official response by the office of the sponsoring Senator.
"Like many Queens residents, I was deeply disturbed by recent revelations detailing the excesses at the Queens Borough Public Library. The Queens Library is a gem in our borough and the misuse of taxpayer dollars at this institution is simply unacceptable. With this legislation I believe the library will become more efficient, more transparent, and more accountable and I am confident it will withstand any legal or constitutional scrutiny."
NYS Senator Submits Reform Bill Calling For Czar-like Control Of Queens Library Trustees
We reviewed some of the proposed changes included in the Senator's bill. They shorten the terms of the Trustees, which one could argue either way - shorter means that by the time you're up to speed on things you're out; and longer means that you could become an entrenched interest. Click to view the Queens Opinion section for what professional librarians from around the nation and around NYC think of the proposed legislation. But the biggest change was the expansion of Executive privilege and power.
The proposed legislation provides the Queens Borough President and the NYC Mayor, who have alternating power to appoint Queens Library Board trustees, with the power to dismiss their own appointees without any checks or balances in the process. To be sure, the dismissed trustee can appeal to the government official who is sacking them, but nobody else gets to weigh in - not even the alternate party [the non-appointing QBP or Mayor]. This appears to essentially reduce the newly appointed trustees to mere puppets that can be removed within a very short period of time, anytime they step out of line.
Library Associations Around The Nation Disagree With The Proposed Changes
Presidents from the American Library Association, the Public Library Association & the United For Libraries think that the negative implications of this legislation reach well beyond Queens and New York State, as you can read in a public letter they sent to the legislators and which is included in the Queens Buzz Opinions section. Essentially they argue that it politicizes the library system and saps it of its independence.
This Bill could well turn the Queens Library into an extension of the political machine
Read the exact language in the bill for yourself and please tell me if the above headline is wrong. Here it is.
Please note that the numbers are the lines of the bill.
The trustees shall hereafter be chosen and vacancies
14 occurring in such office filled by an appointment, which Shall alternate
15 between the mayor of the city of New York and the president of the
16 Borough of Queens; provided, however, that any trustee appointed to a
17 new term or filling a vacancy on or after June 1, 2014 must be either a
18 resident of Queens or own or operate a business in Queens; and provided
19 further that the appointing party shall notify the other appointing
20 party of who was appointed.
The appointing party shall be authorized to
21 remove a trustee whom such party appointed for misconduct, incapacity,
22 neglect of duty, or where it appears to the satisfaction of the appoint-
1 ing party that the trustee has failed or refuses to carry into effect
2 its educational purpose. The appointing party shall not be required to
3 obtain a recommendation from the board to remove a trustee which such
4 party appointed. A trustee subject to removal shall have an opportunity
5 to submit a response or appeal within seven business days to any cause
6 for removal to the appointing party and the appointing party shall
7 review the reason for removal and any response submitted to the party
8 prior to the removal of such person.
When the board recommends removal,
9 the trustee subject to removal may appeal to both appointing parties and
10 either appointing party may remove the trustee where sufficient cause is
11 found. When one of the appointing parties recommends removal of a trustee,
12 such appointing party must provide the subject trustee with notice
13 and an opportunity to appeal, provided, however, that the trustee
14 subject to removal by an appointing body may submit a written appeal to
15 both appointing parties for review and both parties must agree on
16 removal for such removal to be effective.
"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free . . . it expects what never was and never will be"
Are our electeds doing the right thing by allowing the power of a top performing independent library system to be aggregated into the offices of the Queens Borough President & the Mayor through the revision of its charter?
Do we think that Queens award winning libraries will be better off because of these changes? It's our Queens Library, and we encourage you to contact the elected officials involved in this drama, if you think they've chosen the wrong course of action.
Summary: Playing Politics With Queens Library
They're passing legislation before the FBI and the Department of Investigations have completed their review of the matter. And they're proposing to make changes to one of NYC's and the nation's top performing libraries.
With the exception of granting government officials in the executive branches Czar-like control over trustees, they are passing a law that appears redundant to an existing law that governs all non-profits - the Non-Profit Revitalization Act of 2013. Attorney General Schneiderman spent two years crafting this bill.
This legislation appears to be an uneven application of the law, given that a number of other entities would fall into the same or similar classification as the Queens Library including: the local Economic Development Corps, the Business Improvement Districts, and numerous non-profit orgs ranging from the arts, to cultural, to environmental and even educational orgs - like the charter schools. If this is good legislation for one of the non-profit organizations [the Queens Library], then shouldn't it be good legislation for all of them?
"Bad Laws Are A Menace To The State"
The above is an edited quote from one of the sculptures on one of the buildings of the Supreme Court Appellate Division in Manhattan [scroll up to see sculpture photo for unedited inscription].
We don't think this legislation is good for any of the non-profits. And we don't think it's good for the Queens Library either. Let the investigating bodies [FBI & DOI] complete their work, monitor the implementation of the Non-Profit Revitalization Act in the Queens Library and let events take their course, as this situation seems already well in hand by Federal, State and NYC officials. This legislation looks like someone(s) is playing politics with one of the nation's top performing libraries.
"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely"
This line is attributed to historian / writer John Dalberg-Acton in the 19th century.
Library professionals around the nation and in the city appear to disagree with what our representatives in the NY State Assembly and NY State Senate are legislating with regard to the Queens Library. Click here to read an open letter sent to the NY State Legislature about this matter.
It's Your Queens Library - Make Your Voice Heard
This is the phone number and email address of the NY State Senator who is sponsoring the bill. I'm sure Senator Michael Gianaris would be happy to hear from you and you can call him at 718-728-0960 or email him at gianaris @ nysenate.gov . Ask him to let the FBI & DOI do their jobs, to monitor the implementation of the Non-Profit Revitalization Act of 2013, and to stop over-legislating the governance of one of the nation's top performing library systems.
And if you got this far, thanks for participating in the democratic process. An informed and active electorate is critical to the proper functioning of a democratic society. To requote Jefferson - "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free . . . it expects what never was and never will be".