The Monroe County Public Library Board of Trustees ended months of bitter debate on Aug. 20 when it voted 5-2 to start televising its monthly work sessions, every other month.
Bitter may be an understatement. Trustee Penny Austin said at an Aug. 13 board work session that coming to meetings makes her feel physically ill. She reiterated that point at the board’s regular meeting a week later.
At the work session, board President John Walsh characterized Trustee Randy Paul’s “behavior and tactics” as “selfish, narcissistic, disrespectful, dishonorable, unethical and detrimental.” He repeated disrespectful, dishonorable and unethical twice.
Board Vice President Fred Risinger shouted at Paul during the work session. He too restated his frustrations at the Aug. 20 meeting.
“I really feel like we’ve been pressured into this, and I resent it,” he said of a vote to have Community Access Television Services (CATS) broadcast the board’s previously untelevised work sessions.
Since his appointment to the board 20 months ago, Paul has been a controversial and tenacious watchdog on board actions, a role that two audience members acknowledged and applauded during public comment at the board’s regular meeting.
Bruce Lilly said he was a regular library user who became aware of Paul and his issues through letters to the editor and newspaper articles.
“Over the past couple of years, I feel that when I have encountered things in the newspaper from Randy Paul, they have seemed to be things I have cared about,” he said. “He really speaks for a lot of what I care about, and I respect what he is doing, and I really support his efforts.”
Writing letters to the editor and talking to reporters when he disagrees with board positions or votes is the primary tactic that Paul has been chastised for by Walsh, Risinger, Austin and others.
Trustee Janice Stockton echoed other board members when she said Paul should accept board decisions instead of taking his agenda to the public.
“I think that when the majority makes a decision in this country, historically, we have respected that decision,” she said. “The majority rules.”
But Laura Ruchti, a library staff member and union organizer, praised Paul for his work.
“The board is a much better board because of Randy Paul being on it,” she said. “I respect him and his views, and I think the library is a much better library with Randy Paul in it.”
Televising library board work sessions on CATS is among several issues Paul has broken with the board over and gone to the media.
The board holds work sessions a week before each monthly meeting to discuss and debate agenda items. No votes are cast at work sessions, and they are open to the public.
Monthly meetings, at which votes are cast, are broadcast by CATS.
Paul has argued for televised work sessions since early in his 20-month tenure on the board. He maintains that the real debate over library policy occurs at the work sessions.
Last December, he agreed to drop the issue if the board would allow a vote. A common board tactic against Paul’s initiatives is to let them die without action. The board voted 6-1 against him.
But Paul renewed his campaign for televised work sessions with the Aug. 13 session just passed, at which the board discussed budgeting $80,000 for a $380-an-hour Indianapolis lawyer to represent the library at union negotiations. The board again rejected his request.
CATS, a department of the library, has a policy that it will televise any public event at the request of any citizen, as long as the station has the resources available at meeting time.
Paul filed a request as a citizen to have the work session televised, and Walsh offered a compromise that the board will televise every other work session.
Paul agreed to withdraw his CATS request.
Walsh and others argue that Paul reneged on his December 2007 commitment when he demanded that the board televise Aug. 13 work-session lawyer debate.
Board Vice President Fred Risinger, who was among the six board members who voted against televised meetings in December, said on Aug. 20 that he was “between a rock and a hard place” and changed his vote.
"The board is a much better board because of Randy Paul being on it. I respect him and his views, and I think the library is a much better library with Randy Paul in it."
- Laura Ruchti, library employee
“I just can’t vote against televised sessions of whatever,” he said, reiterating his opposition to Paul’s tactics.
Austin, who voted against the compromise, agreed about Paul’s approach.
“It was forced on us,” she said.
Walsh, Risinger, Stephen Moberly and David Ferguson joined Paul and voted for the compromise. Stockton and Austin voted against it.
As a defense against his detractors, Paul argues that the board’s reversal on televising work sessions is the seventh time it has done so after he has taken issues to the media. It’s seven out of eight now, he says.
And the issues he cites are substantive.
For example, until this summer, when employees voted to join the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the library had never had a union. The consensus is that the union formed largely in response to the board’s failure to react to deteriorating work conditions under the former library director Cindy Gray.
Paul was the first and only board member to go public with concerns about Gray and to call for her resignation. By the time Gray finally did resign, the wedge between management and staff was too deep. Library staff voted by a 56-44 margin to unionize.
In 2006, before Paul’s appointment, the board approved a $600,000 plan to renovate the library’s second floor. Paul found the plan to be “deeply flawed,” went public with his concerns, and the board subsequently voted to reverse itself, again unanimously.
In 2007 the board voted to eliminate health insurance to employees who retire early, a decision that Paul calls “horrific to our most dedicated staff.” He again publicly challenged the board, and the vote was again reversed by a unanimous vote.
"I think that when the majority makes a decision in this country, historically, we have respected that decision."
- Janet Stockton, MCPL Trustee
Paul apologized to the board at the Aug. 20 meeting for going back on his word on televised work sessions, saying he read an unfinished draft of his statement in December instead of an edited one.
“The difference in the two statements is significant,” he said.
The final statement had two sentences that said he would drop his demands to the board for televised work sessions but wouldn’t relinquish his right as a citizen to do so, Paul said. Those points were not read into the record.
“On this point, the board is right,” he said. “I was wrong.”
Paul said he would withdraw his CATS request to have the September and October work sessions televised.
“I will honor what I said on Dec. 19th of last year,” he said, “and will not submit another request before this board or CATS again.”
Prior to the Aug. 20 meeting, The Bloomington Alternative filed a request with CATS to televise all board work sessions.
Steven Higgs can be reached at .