Photograph by Steven Higgs

MCPL Director Cindy Gray says she will stay in the position until told to go. Library board member Randy Paul has asked her to consider what is in the library and community’s best interests.

Ask Cindy Gray how the Monroe County Public Library (MCPL) devolved from one of the nation's recognized best to a hotbed of labor-management strife, and her eyes widen.

"If I knew the answer to that, we wouldn't be here," she said during a recent interview in her office on the library's third floor.

Gray insisted that she has reached out to her staff and tried to be inclusive during her 2 1/2 years as library director.

"The interesting contradiction in all of this is that we have six committees functioning, with nearly 20 members on each," she said. "... What I've tried to do is bring in staff at all levels."

But the situation is so bad that MCPL board member Randy Paul not only believes a unionization effort will pass, he effectively called for Gray's resignation in a letter last week, saying that her job performance "smacks of cronyism and is, at a minimum, unprofessional."

He wrote: "During this time you have exceeded your authority and abused your power as executive director. Regardless of motive, or legal standing, your actions over the past few years puts this library to shame."

Paul was responding to information the library provided in response to a public records request from The Bloomington Alternative regarding Gray's tenure.

"Cindy, I must be honest with you," he wrote. "I do not think you can effectively perform your duties as executive director at the library. The conduct of your personal affairs, mixed with the current controversy with the staff, brings serious questions as to your judgment and leadership abilities. I think it might be time for you to decide what is in the best interest of the library, and the community."

Flanked by MCPL Board President Stephen Moberly in her office, Gray said she is staying "until I'm told to go."

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Gray and Moberly scoff at the phrase "business model" as a descriptor of the library's managerial approach - "not a term that I would use or have used," said Moberly, a retired lawyer from Shelbyville and former state legislator.

But Gray routinely cites a new "organizational culture" at the library, precipitated by changing economic times.

The library gets the bulk of its $6.9 million annual budget from property and county option income taxes (COIT). Officials project they will receive $3.8 million this year from property taxes and $1.99 million from COIT.

COIT funding, however, is linked to the library's level of indebtedness, which is decreasing. By 2012, COIT funding is projected to drop by roughly $220,000.

And the changes are not off in the future, according to budget data supplied by Gray. The library's 2008 operating budget will remain essentially flat, projected to grow by only $32,000.

With personnel costs accounting for about 70 percent of the library's expenditures, Gray said that's the area where the most savings can be found.

And some changes, like reductions approved by the board last August, led to internal strife. They included reducing the number of sick days employees can accrue and the amount of unused sick time employees get paid for when they leave, and the library tradition of paying for health insurance for retiring employees.

The depth of the animosity between Gray and the workers was reflected in a July 16, 2006, e-mail from Gray to other board members, which has come to be known as the "smoking gun memo" by some staff.

Moberly provided the e-mail to the Alternative as part of its public records request.

"Part of me wants to be benevolent," Gray wrote, "but on the other hand, these same folks are the very ones who didn't bat an eye at accepting 5-7 percent pay increases in recent years. ... To be blunt, losing some of these folks could indeed be healthy for the organizational culture."

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It's not the decisions that Gray has made that have Paul and a large number of the library's staff and supporters fuming. It's her management style and ethical questions about specific actions she has taken, with board approval, that prompt the use of terms like unprofessional, cronyism, favoritism and shame in the debate.

Central to much of the discussion was the director's use of stipends, first awarded in 2006, according to the administration's response to the Alternative's records request.

"Stipends have since been used, in a limited fashion, to provide incentives for special project work (transitioning the book sale to a book store), to give staff experience and opportunities beyond their normal day-to-day responsibilities (Intern proposal for teaching Spanish language classes), or to accomplish some tasks that have been placed aside because there is not enough manpower to get them done (coordination of public services issues and concerns)," the document said.

Only a half dozen stipends were awarded, ranging from $86 to $700. No money is allocated for stipends in the proposed 2008 library budget now being considered by the board.

But Gray's disbursement of them did lead to allegations of favoritism and, in one case, questions of legality and a formal complaint. That case involved a stipend paid by Gray to an employee from whom she had accepted a sizeable personal loan.

In response to Alternative questions about that allegation, the administration responded: "Pursuant to Indiana Code 5-14-3-4-(b) 8: 'The Library can not release information, other than to acknowledge the Library was made aware of the loan by a formal complaint, the Library investigated the complaint, and there was no violation of the Libraries' policies."

Without discussing specifics, Gray accepted responsibility.

"Have I used poor judgment in a personal loan?" she said. "Yes, I'll admit that, yes I did. Would I do it again? No, I'd shoot myself in the foot first. You make mistakes as you go along. I can't go back."

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Another charge leveled against Gray and the board involved her use of the library credit card for moving expenses.

"Your abuse of the library credit card is the best example of this faulty benchmark," Paul wrote. "Basically you gave yourself an 'interest free loan' with public money. But because you technically did not break any laws, it's OK? What member of the public would not love to be able to grab the credit card from a company they work for, charge expenses to the card, and then set up monthly payments to pay it back?"

Because her house in Texas did not sell for a year and a half, Gray said, she was under a financial burden at the time.

In their written response, library administrators said the board approved $9,000 in moving expenses for Gray, of which it paid $4,959, and explained why the credit card was used.

"Moving expenses were paid for on the Library credit card - as many staff travel expenditures are," they wrote. "It was viewed as the most expeditious way to handle the situation given the distance and multiple expenses that were incurred throughout the 1.5 year process."

While the director thought payroll deductions to repay the charges were initiated in March 2006, it was later discovered that they weren't, the administration wrote, and approval was sought for an "extended payback plan."

Gray said she did nothing without board approval.

"I certainly had no intentions of doing anything unethical or inappropriate," she said. "It just seemed to be a practical way to handle it. ... I certainly didn't want to discredit the library or myself in this process."

Moberly said discussion and approval of the arrangements occurred before he joined the board. But he is not troubled by them.

"I do not consider that to be a major matter," he said. "And our lawyer, Tom Bunger, was involved, and he says it was completely legal."

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Moberly said the board's priority now is completing work on the 2008 budget, which must be finalized and submitted to state tax officials in early September. After that, members will turn their attention to the unionization movement.

"We're going to have our first work session regarding that issue, I believe it is, on Sept. 19," he said, later confirming the date.

Moberly acknowledged that workers at few libraries in Indiana have opted for union protection against their managements. Only three out of 263 libraries in the state - Indianapolis-Marion County, Hammond and South Bend - are union shops.

Gray said Cincinnati librarians recently voted to unionize.

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Gray said she regrets the turmoil her leadership has caused.

"I think it is unfortunate that some staff feel that this is their last resort," she said, referring to the union movement. "... If that's where we're at, that's where we're at."

Gray said she has not done anything differently here than she has elsewhere.

"My history in libraries and administration has been get input, balance it out and make the best decision you can after you have it," she said. "That's how I've operated here. That's how I operated in Texas. I'm beginning to learn the hard way that Bloomington folks tend to be a little different."

Steven Higgs can be reached at .