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Detroit Library Commission, Roy Roberts Clash Over Commissioner Appointment

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File photo. DPS Emergency Manager Roy Roberts Is engaged in a dispute with the Detroit Library Commission over the appointment over one of its board members. The incident is similar to another showdown that took place last year. (Photo via the Detroit Public Library.) | DPL

The struggle between Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager Roy Roberts and the Detroit School Board has once again spilled over to the Detroit Library Commission -- a situation the body's president is calling "shameless."

In late December, Roberts signed an order reappointing outgoing Library Commissioner Ed Thomas. On Jan. 3 Thomas, a retired judge, then notarized an oath with Wayne County swearing him back into office. At the library commission's monthly meeting Tuesday, however, the commission chose not to reseat Thomas, instead swearing in Diane Allen, the school board's choice for commissioner.

Thomas, a retired Wayne County judge, has come under fire for nepotism while serving on the library's board. The Detroit News reports his daughter, who started working at the library in 2007 as a clerk, in 2009 was offered a lucrative contract for more than $150,000 over two years to plan events at the library's teen center.

The library's deputy director at the time was Juliet Machie. Thomas then backed Machie in a bid for director of the Detroit Public Library that year, but the job ultimately went to Jo Anne Mondowney. The library adopted a nepotism policy following the incident, but Thomas has said he played no role in his daughter's contract.

According to the Detroit Public Library website, commission members are appointed by the Detroit Public Schools Board of Education -- a point of procedure that Roberts, who wasn't present at Tuesday's meeting, disputes.

In 2011, he appointed Franklin Jackson to the commission under his authority as emergency manager of the school system. At the time, the emergency manager law granted officials like Roberts special powers over municipalities and school boards, but that version of the law was repealed by voters last November. A weaker emergency financial manager law, Public Act 72 of 1990, is now in effect. Roberts, however, asserts that the change has no bearing on the library commission appointment process.

"Public Act 72 unequivocally gives Mr. Roberts (and only Mr. Roberts) the authority to appoint, and conversely remove, individuals from the Detroit Library Commission," Jennifer Mrozowski, a spokeswoman for Detroit Public Schools, told The Huffington Post in an email. "As allowed by the law, he reappointed Judge Thomas by executive order on Dec. 27, 2012 and expects that the Commission should follow the law and swear Judge Thomas in accordingly."

Russ Bellant, the library commission president, maintains Michigan law explicitly gives appointment power to the school board. He says the commission received two legal opinions asserting "that Roy Roberts did not have appointment power under PA 72."

According to Bellant, Thomas refused to leave his seat during Tuesday's meeting to accomodate the newly sworn-in member.

"We did the swearing in of Diane Allen. We got an extra chair to put her there. It wasn't worth asking security to remove him, so we all just sat there," Bellant said. "He's a retired judge. He knows what the legal opinions are and he knows what the law is and it's kind of shameless that he wouldn't step aside."

Other members of the commission are less sympathetic to Bellant's reading of the case. Commissioner Jonathan Kinloch, the body's previous president and current secretary, called Bellant's handling of the meeting "political posturing ... to put himself in a stronger position to run for Detroit City Council."

According to Kinloch, the battle over the commission seat is essentially a continuation of the ongoing power struggle between the emergency financial manager and the school board. He thinks the library commission should stay out of the conflict and let the courts resolve the matter.

"At this particular point we have two particular individuals who have been sworn in on one seat on the library commission," Kinloch said. "The meetings now, until this is resolved, are going to be kind of interesting."

The Huffington Post made several efforts to contact Allen for information on her professional background, but she did not immediately respond.

The tussle at the library is a near replay of an incident last June, when Roberts attempted to take a seat for himself on the commission that would have allowed him to cast a decisive vote concerning the suspension of Director Mondowney.

Roberts eventually backed down from that fight, allowing Detroit Board of Education President LaMar Lemmons to take the seat as an ex-officio voting member of the body.

The current struggle highlights Roberts' continued interest in the Detroit Public Library, and Bellant expects even more conflict in the near future thanks to a revised emergency manager law set to kick in this March.

"When the new emergency manager law comes in, we're very concerned that Roy Roberts is going to again try to make a claim to take over the library commission," Bellant said.

The current conflict is far from the library system's only problem. Several branches were closed in 2011 due to a budget shortfall, and last November the office of Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cromer was the focus of an FBI raid.

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