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Queens Chronicle

Ex-Queens Library trustees lose in U.S. District Court

Judge's report denies constitutional claim to keep their seats; new member named

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Posted: Tuesday, August 12, 2014 8:20 pm | Updated: 10:13 am, Fri Aug 15, 2014.

Update: The new mayoral appointee to the Queens Library Board is Jukay Hsu, a Flushing native and founder of a technology incubator in Long Island City who served on Mayor de Blasio's transition team, according to Library spokeswoman Joanne King.

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The six former Queens Library trustees who took Borough President Melinda Katz and state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to federal court in a bid to retain their volunteer positions on the board suffered a major setback Tuesday.

Brooklyn Magistrate Judge James Orenstein recommended that their requests for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction that would nullify their July 23 dismissal by Katz be denied. Ornstein made the decision in a verbal ruling from the bench, which a source familiar with the case said is rare and demonstrates the ease with which he made his determination.

"I think it's worth noting that it's rare for a magistrate judge to dictate a report and recommendation from the bench," the source said. "The judge felt strongly enough about what he had heard in arguments to render the decision then, and it was unequivocal."

In federal court, magistrate judges often hear motions and make recommendations to the judge actually assigned to the case, so the recommendation is not final. The source said the assigned jurist, U.S. District Judge Margo Brodie, could make the ruling official within a few days.

The plaintiffs have until Aug. 29 to file objections to Orenstein's decision or they lose the right to appeal.

A spokesman for their attorney, Douglas Grover of the firm Schlam, Stone & Dolan, said they are weighing their legal options.

"The six trustees are distinguished leaders with long records of service to the community," Grover said in a prepared statement. "They could not allow the actions by the Borough President to go unchallenged. They brought this action to assert the independence of the Library and the right of every trustee to act without political interference. They are understandably disappointed by today’s outcome but remain true friends of the library and hope for its continued success.”

The former trustees were stripped of their positions shortly after a new state law took effect allowing Katz and Mayor de Blasio, whose offices together appoint all board members, to dismiss members at any time. De Blasio fired two more the same day, but they did not sue.

The sextet claim Katz's action is an illegal power grab and the new law unconstitutional because the library is a private institution. Though it gets about 90 percent of its funding from the taxpayer, the vast bulk of that from the city budget, the library is nonprofit, state-chartered organization under contract with the city. It was set up that way specifically to avoid political interference, which is what the fired trustees allege Katz is engaged in.

The law and the firings come on the heels of the financial scandal surrounding the library, especially its president and CEO, Tom Galante. The members who were let go were part of a faction on the board that had voted against putting Galante on paid leave while a federal investigation of the library plays out; and also voted against providing to City Comptroller Scott Stringer all the financial records he demands for an ongoing audit. 

The library has provided those records dealing with its spending of public funds but not those concerned with the private funds that make up the remainder of its revenue — as per an agreement reached in a court case with a former comptroller. Stringer, however, insists upon seeing all records in light of the scandal and has taken the library to court to get them.

De Blasio and Katz will now take turns appointing new trustees. The mayor named one today, a source said, and Katz will designate one tomorrow. Their terms will be for three years, as per the new law.

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