The presence of Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Roy Roberts loomed heavily over a contentious, disruption-filled meeting of the Detroit Library Commission at the main branch Tuesday. At issue was whether the Emergency Manager (EM) would take a seat on commission and cast a decisive vote concerning the suspension of Detroit Public Library Director Jo Anne Mondowney.
Last week Roberts sent a letter to Detroit Board of Education President LaMar Lemmons informing him of his intent to take his position on the seven member body by invoking the emergency manager law, Public Act 4. Members of the commission, which governs the Detroit Public Library system, are appointed by the school board, with the board's president sitting on the commission as an ex-officio seventh member.
Mondowney was placed on paid administrative leave in early May after allegations of misspending and mismanagement. The troubled library system closed two branches and laid off more than 20 percent of the staff in 2012.
Although Roberts arrived at the commission meeting with the intention of participating, he left shortly before it was called to order. DPS spokesman Steven Wasko said the emergency manager "did not believe it was going to be a productive session."
Detroit School Board President Lemmons did show up, however, provoking a conflict between commission chair Jonathan Kinloch and commissioners Russell Bellant and Gregory Hicks that dominated most of the meeting.
Kinloch supports the suspension of DPL director Mondowney and voted to put her on paid administrative leave on May 8 with two other members, but that motion did not have the requisite amount of commissioners attending the motion and still requires ratification at proper meeting of the body. Bellant and Hicks oppose Mondowney's suspension.
Kinloch refused to recognize Lemmons -- who would have voted against the director's suspension -- in the roll call, maintaining that Roberts had a right to replace him under the authority granted to him by Public Act 4. This action prompted cries of "shame, shame" from members of the public who packed the room to voice their concerns about the future of the library. Similar disruptions from the audience broke out throughout the proceedings.
The meeting continued in an unruly manner, with Kinloch refusing to recognize members on several occasions and initially blocking public comment during an earlier part of the proceedings concerning the Detroit Library Cooperative, a parallel body consisting of commission members that handles the sharing of resources in the wider library system.
Eventually the chair relented and allowed public commentary. Most of the remarks concerned fears about the DPS emergency manager assuming a seat on the commission.
"The library is in danger of being looted," said Elena Herrada, a member of the Detroit School Board. "We're asking people in our own commission -- do not sell us out to the emergency manager."
Teresa Kelly said that she lived four doors away from Highland Park's McGregor library, which was closed by an emergency financial manager in 2002, and never reopened. She said she is worried that Detroit's libraries could face a similar fate.
When the issue of ratifying the suspension of DPL director finally came to a vote, the commission was unable to reach a consensus, deadlocking three to three. Lemmons voted against the suspension, but was not recognized by the chair.
Afterwards, Commissioner Bellant criticized the chair's handling of the proceedings, claiming that Kinloch was "systematically violating correct procedure" in order "to deny the majority of the commission a say in how the library's being operated."
Bellant maintains that Roberts does not have the legal authority to sit on the commission and said the members of the commission were acting out of their own self-interest in supporting him.
"We don't need people trying to use the library as their own piggy bank or personal political agenda," he told The Huffington Post. "We need people committed to delivering the services to the city."
Kinloch defended his actions during the meeting as carrying out the necessary work of the commission.
"I, as president, have a responsibility to the citizens of this city and to the integrity of this institution to make sure that action is brought forward that needs to be transacted," he said.
Kinloch added that he had personal reservations about the power of emergency managers, but said it was up to voters to remove them by repealing Public Act 4.
"The only thing [Roberts] did today was further define the fact he has assumed the powers of the Board of Education, which is already well known and established law in this community," he said. "He's assumed the powers of the president as being an ex-officio member of this commission, and that's all that happened."
In a statement to The Huffington Post, Roberts said he was taking time "to gain a better understanding of the role and function of the Library Commission."
"In a community with long-term literacy challenges, with the many efforts now underway to support literacy, and knowing that many of the same families with children in our schools are those who utilize the libraries the most," he said. "I will do my part to ensure that the Detroit Public Library is effectively working on behalf of the citizens of the City of Detroit."
The next regular meeting of the library commission is scheduled for Sept. 18. A special meeting of the audit committee will be held June 28. For more information on the commission, visit www.detroit.lib.mi.us/detroit-library-commission.