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Massena Town Board hoping for less drama at library

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MASSENA - For years, decades even, the minutes of the Massena Library Board meetings had read like a poorly written high school textbook. Yawn.

But for the past few months, the meetings’ tone and tenor had taken a dramatic turn.

The last few months have included the resignation of all five library board members as well as the library director. Tensions between library employees and the library board surfaced. There were rifts between board members and charges of improprieties were raised. The town board even closed the library for a few days when there were no library board members or even a director.

The newly named five-member library board met briefly with the Massena Town Board earlier this week where they were tasked eliminating the drama and moving the library board’s work back onto the non-fiction shelves.

Town Supervisor Joseph D. Gray said after several weeks of drama the town board was anticipating the library would be returning to its more traditional status under the leadership of the five newly appointed library board members.

“It’s been a difficult couple of months, but we are starting fresh from a board perspective. The library is not supposed to be a controversial place, and we hope we don’t get there again,” he said.

He noted the transition for the new library board should be eased somewhat with Paul Schaffer’s return as an interim director on a part-time basis, providing the new board members with a voice with 27 years of experience at the Massena Public Library. Mr. Schaffer retired as the library director in May 2011.

Mr. Gray said the town council had no desire to micromanage the day to day operations at the library, but he suggested the town’s financial contribution to the facility means it has oversight responsibilities. “I would like to work cooperatively,” he said.

“Your charge is to assure the delivery of services at the library unabated to the degree the budget allows. Your primary responsibility is to set policy for the library. But I think major policies should have town council approval as well if it impacts town policies,” the town supervisor said.

He noted in the past portions of the library’s personnel policies violated the town government’s own policies. He told the library board members that is now a moot point since the library employees are now represented by the Teamster’s and a collective bargaining agreement is in place.

Town council members said the library board’s first goals will be to hire a new library director and to develop a tentative spending plan for 2013 to submit to the town board.

“Obviously the timing for the budget is not very good for you guys,” Councilman John Macaulay told the library board.”Your budget has to be submitted to us in late August, early September.

“We’ll both relay heavily on Paul in that process,” he said.

Mr. Gray cautioned the new board members there could be challenges on that front. “The town budget is getting tighter and tighter. Our goal is not to go backwards, but we can’t promise funding levels will remain the same,” he warned.

The town supervisor said the library board can commence its search for a new library director as soon as it receives the list of eligible Civil Service candidates from the county’s Personnel Office.

Mr. Schaffer said it was his understanding there was already a list in place with three potential candidates generated from last year’s search for his successor. He said the board’s first action would be to contact those candidates to see if they were still interested in the post. He said it was his understanding the town would need to hire a candidate off that list.

Town Councilman Robert Cunningham said he wanted clarification from the county on the hiring process. “Is it an absolute or an opinion that we have to hire off that list?” he wondered, noting those type of questions had arisen on several other occasions during the recent turmoil at the library. “This whole library has been a learning experience for us.”

Mr. Gray said the town board does play a limited role in hiring for library positions. “Any hiring at the library has to be approved by this board. If you come forward with a recommendation for us, we typically have not and do not plan to say, ‘No, we don’t like that person.’ The technicality is we have to approve all hiring,” he noted.

Town board members also told the library board it should keep some distance from the Friends of the Library, an advocacy group that has raised tens of thousands of dollars that have been donated to the library in recent years.

“There had been a crossing over of officers of the Friends of the library and the library board in the past,” he said, an apparent reference to Friends of the Library leader and former library board president and vice president Rick Geiser. “We’d like to keep an organizational separation if we can,” he said.

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