"IMCPL needs a new board
Like a lot of people, I was excited when our new Central Library finally opened in December. Last spring, after touring the building while it was still under construction, I wrote that I thought it was the most impressive architectural statement made in this city in a generation. I still feel that way.
But it’s beginning to look like it could take a generation to straighten out the indefensible mess that’s been made of the way the library is governed.
The latest insult to this beleaguered public resource concerns the hiring of Laura Bramble as library director. Bramble is a veteran librarian who served ably as interim director after her predecessor, the hapless Linda Mielke, was invited to resign. Bramble presided over the completion of the Central Library building project, an estimable accomplishment.
Unfortunately for Bramble, she wound up being library board President Louis Mahern’s favorite when the time came to hire a permanent (I use this word loosely) library CEO. As it happened, the library board boiled applicants for this job down to three people — all of whom, for better or worse, were IMCPL insiders. One of these, Jackie Nytes, a former library administrator and City-County Council Democrat, appeared to be favored by most staff members, in spite of the conflict of interest suggested by her political office.
Mahern, a Democrat himself, favored Bramble. Not only that, when the choice was brought to a vote, he appeared to jimmy the process, denying a newly appointed board member a chance to vote so that Peter Pizzaro, a member who was no longer a resident of Marion County and so technically ineligible, could cast a vote instead. Pizarro voted for Bramble; the new member, Elsa Kramer, it is said, would have supported Nytes. The final tally, which might have been 3-3, was 4-2 and people have been crying foul ever since.
This prompted Mahern to write a piece for The Star on Jan. 2 in which he attacked his critics for trying to put undue political pressure on the library. “If Democratic, or for that matter Republican, elected officials can cause an individual to be hired as library CEO,” he warned, “they can cause that individual to be fired as well.”
Mahern was answered two days later by Marion County Auditor Billie Breaux. Breaux is one of three county commissioners, including the treasurer and assessor, responsible for appointing three members to the library board. The school board appoints two more library board members and the City-County Council appoints another two, for a total of seven. Breaux said Mahern was not being “truthful or forthright with the public” about his handling of the Bramble hiring.
And so another battle in the unhappy recent history of the IMCPL was joined.
What was once one of the top urban public library systems in the country has been turned into a political piñata ever since the mid ’90s, when another ill-fated library CEO, Ed Szynaka, began the citywide library expansion project. Suddenly, there was a lot of money in library construction. And where, in the old days, library board members tended to be do-gooder types, they started turning into political go-getters like the infelicitously named David “Mark” Bowell, who wound up pleading guilty to conflict-of-interest charges connected with library construction in 2006.
In the ’90s, the people making board appointments were mainly Republican. Lately they’ve been Democrats. If the library is any indicator, most have been on the make. It’s difficult to overstate the mendacity and plain bone-headedness of most of the library board appointments made by the county commissioners, school board and City-County Council over the past 12 years or so. This has resulted in the abrupt dismissal of two CEOs, budget overruns, loss of veteran public service staff in favor of a top-heavy (and highly paid) administrative class, the gutting of important archival collections, construction mismanagement and what appears to be a future full of litigation.
Had any of the bodies responsible for making library board appointments exercised even reasonable due diligence during this period — like appointing people who actually knew something about public library service — the library’s situation today would be incalculably better than it is. Unfortunately, when it comes to the library, the county’s political business party seems to have substituted public scamming for public service.
Bad as it’s been, there’s still a way out of this mess. Those responsible for making library board appointments can replace board members if they’re unhappy with their performance, regardless of whether a member’s term has run its course. Needless to say, this loophole can — and has — been a source of political mischief in the past. Given our present situation, though, it provides an excellent opportunity to clean house and atone for blunders. The IMCPL may have a new CEO — a new board is what’s really needed.