NORWALK, Conn. – A “destructive” passage in the drafted East Norwalk Library master plan was excised Tuesday night after a spirited discussion in which a consultant hired by the Third Taxing District recommended that the library’s executive director be replaced.
“You can do all the things that are in the study, but you can’t do them if you don’t have the right leadership,” Alex Cohen of Aaron Cohen Associates said to members of the Library Planning Committee. “If the leadership is telling you to do it one way and the consultant is telling you another, then there is a gap. You have to decide where the gap is. That’s what we wanted to bring to your attention because we know about these things. You hired us because we are library people.”
The committee, composed of three TTD commissioners, three East Norwalk Association board members and three members of the community, voted, after nearly two hours of discussion, 5-2-1 to remove the pages that Cohen had tacked onto the back of his final draft, which included comments made by East Norwalk Library Association Executive Director Stan Siegel. The committee also added a word to an earlier paragraph: “opinion.” The resultant final master plan will be released Friday, Cohen said.
The meeting began with a presentation by Cohen, a back and forth with the committee in which he used the phrase “leadership problem” over and over again. Siegel’s release to NancyOnNorwalk of the draft master plan was an issue for Cohen and some committee members; the inclusion of Siegel’s comments was the major issue for others.
“We felt that if we didn’t put them in you would just take this report and, ‘Oh great, they finished the report,’” he said, at that point dramatically tossing his report in a trash can.
“I have been working with you for eight months trying to get you to sit down together and work together,” Cohen said. “This library has got a 100-year history. We can’t know but my time is up, there are future phases, lots to do, so I wanted to make sure we all sat together and we understood: You have good staff. … But it is time to find employees with the requisite skills and attitude to disrupt the ENA’s traditional model. That’s our recommendation. It’s the 21st century. Cultivating employees with the courage to step into something new and uncertain.”
Cohen never used Siegel’s name, although he was sitting in the room, away from the table where the committee sat. This led committee Vice Chairman Bill Solder to eventually quip about a “6½-foot problem” as “he is in the room, we are talking about him as if he is not.”
Some comments by Cohen:
- “We were told (by the staff) that the library is good because we serve our people. When there were conversations about unmet needs, we were told, ‘The library is good, it’s doing just fine.’ We were troubled by this communication because every library has to transform and reinvent itself. If you are not looking at unmet needs, then other people will come and take those users. A good example is Starbucks. Starbucks came along and suddenly people are hanging out and working in Starbucks. That is a library function. … Those very people could be in the East Norwalk Association library if there was a café and if there was a nice place to sit, have a cup of coffee, read the paper and get on the Wi-Fi.”
- “There’s questions over services. There’s questions over unmet needs. This conversation that we had, and that’s really why this report ended up today, is we had commentary going back that just didn’t jibe with reality.”
- “We did not get full cooperation during this study. There were many instances where we had challenges with the library and we wished we didn’t, but that’s how it was. It limited our ability to make some of those innovations that were possible.”
- “Just because the ENA has stable funding doesn’t mean it will serve the community well into the future. The library needs to make an emotional connection with the community.”
- “There are unmet needs associated with access to the building. It’s not ADA accessible, but that’s not the big issue. The big issue is there are not enough seats, there are not enough places for people to gather in the library. … It’s about transforming a 20th century library into a 21st century library. The difference between the two is for a 20th century library, most of the square footage was allocated, say 15 percent to 75 percent of the square footage, was allocated to hard copy collection, to allow that collection to be browseable. In the library of the 21st century, we go online, we find a book, we get it delivered to the library, we see a friend, maybe go have a cup of coffee.”
Cohen said his firm requested information from the library, including usage stats from the last 10 years, and “couldn’t make heads or tails of” what they were given.
“Even if they did come through, they seemed to be deceptive, they seemed to be old metrics and maybe we shouldn’t even bother ourselves with them,” Cohen said.
“We can’t be responsible for what happened before any of us were here,” ENA Board member Sarah Mann said.
Leadership has changed and things have changed a lot, she said.
“We had a former treasurer who took off with the (accounting) books and would not return them,” Mann said. “She was at one of our community outreach events. Actually, the police should have been called because she absconded with library property. … That is the kind of stuff that they were dealing with, whoever was on the board then. It was kind of a mess, it was a big mess, but all of that is changed now. We worked very hard to get rid of that perception. We can’t be responsible for what people still think because we did our best.”
The draft plan was constructive, Kathy Cray said.
“I don’t know if it’s constructive to have the comments regarding Stan,” Cray said. “I don’t know, it just seems destructive to me, in certain respects … and it wasn’t in the original plan. I was disappointed actually when I saw it.”
‘I was a little shocked by them. … I felt it was kind of disrespectful,” ENA Board member Sarah Amato-Mills said. “If we are going to move forward, let’s move forward, let’s not be negative about it.”
“The conversation has largely been one-sided,” TTD Commissioner Deb Goldstein said.
Siegel’s objections have been featured in four press articles since the master plan process began, but TTD commissioners have followed the rules and “with good grace” keep their mouths shut, she said.
“Why is it fair for only one side of the conversation to be out there?” she said, arguing for the validity of keeping Siegel’s comments in the plan.
“Leadership is one of the elements you really want to look at if you want to have a thriving business,” TTD Commissioner Charlie Yost said. “Although it’s a very sensitive issue, you have to look at leadership in order to come up with a successful result, so I would be in favor of leaving the information in there because it gives a full perspective. It’s not personal; it gives a full perspective.”
“I would like to know what the problems are so we can fix them. I think to cross it out because it doesn’t fit what we want to hear, that doesn’t work well either,” TTD Commissioner David Brown said.
Goldstein referred to being “bushwhacked” in the press every weekend before a major release of the plan.
After more than an hour, Siegel responded.
“I/We did not go to the press. Nancy was at a library planning committee meeting, she approached me based on a continuation of her first meeting and asked to be updated based upon what was going on,” he said. “Nancy had a copy of the draft proposal at that point. We did not go to Nancy, we gave her the answer to all of her questions. We did not initiate a press involvement, either with The Hour or with NancyOnNorwalk. … We did not in any way shape or form reach out to the press to expose what was going on, good bad or indifferent.”
All of that is correct except that NancyOnNorwalk did not have a copy of the plan before Siegel sent it over.
Cohen had marked his final draft “confidential.”
“Every one of the comments are in this last draft confidential report of mine were taken a little bit out of context because in every single case my responses to the draft proposal that went forward were of a constructive nature, not of a destructive nature,” Siegel said.
He said Cohen had never been denied entrance to the library. Cohen said he was.
The firm had been told its visit was “unauthorized,” he said, referring to comments by Siegel that Siegel has previously made public.
“If we are doing a study, why would we be unauthorized?” Cohen asked. “…We felt attacked by the library staff when in fact they work for the community and we are trying to help the community.”
The comments from Siegel that were included in the final draft are not public because a draft is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. But Cohen referred over and over again to Siegel’s objections to the plan’s inter-library loan recommendation.
“I am finding that inter-library loans is only increasing,” Cohen said, adding that a library that does not provide inter-library loans is not a library.
Siegel’s comments about inter-library loans were included in documents he sent to NoN. The staff already have “full plates” and do not have the time for ILL, he said, continuing:
“In the experience of our staff with the Library’s patrons and other users, such a relationship with ILL would only be ‘lopsided’ virtually completely benefiting members of the public the opportunity to return books to the East Norwalk Association Library that have been borrowed from other libraries,” Siegel wrote.
That commentary “was troubling to us because it’s not that difficult,” Cohen said. “The responses by the executive director did not jibe with our knowledge. So we wanted to include the comments.”
“Stan has a ton of experience and connections,” Cohen said. “This is a small library community. I would love to work at the other libraries in this community. I would hate to have to go out publicly about another library professional who supports the community. That’s not a happy event for me, but I felt it necessary in this context and that is why we did it.”
Goldstein said she was troubled by the characterization of the comments included in the report as “negative.”
“Everything he drew quotes from was said either in writing or in a meeting. These are direct quotes, so to some extent they are already out in the public,” Goldstein said.
“They are not comments about Stanley, they’re Stanley’s comments. So it’s not like there is a commentary going on about Stanley,” Solder said.
“What about truth or untruth?” Siegel said. “I was told that I was uncooperative. I was not uncooperative. It was a lie to say I was uncooperative.”
“I have no objection for Alex as a consultant to indicate he has no faith or confidence in me as executive director,” Siegel said. “… That is not a question of truth or untruth, but to say that I haven’t been cooperative and I have to say it again, ‘I reduced the value that our team could provide by either not participating or resisting all suggestions,’ is not true. But if a consultant wants to say that in his opinion … That is his opinion and I can’t argue that.”
Hence, the addition of a word in the resultant report to specify that it’s Cohen’s opinion.
Mann said it was about Siegel’s reputation in the community, calling comments on one page “offensive.”
“Stan was already at our library planning committee meetings at the Board level,” Mann said. “The three of us, at our meeting, we already talked about going forward, so he already knows that the train is moving down the tracks.”
Brown and Cray voted against the plan with the comments removed; Goldstein abstained.
“The comments section was really meant to have this conversation tonight,” Cohen said as the meeting came to a close. “Normally what we would do is we would take all the comments out and we would let the report run clean. … The challenge is this is a public process.”