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Queens Chronicle

Melinda Katz 'anxious' to appoint new Queens Library trustees

Borough president, mayor purged eight over financial controversy

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Posted: Thursday, August 7, 2014 7:21 pm | Updated: 7:34 pm, Thu Aug 7, 2014.

The naming of new trustees to the Queens Library Board could begin any time now, according to Borough President Melinda Katz. 

Eight vacancies were created on the 19-member board when Katz dismissed six members and Mayor de Blasio discharged two others on July 23 over their support for embattled library CEO Tom Galante.

The six canned by Katz have sued her in federal court to retain their positions, claiming their termination amounts to an unconstitutional power grab. The borough president dismisses that argument. The two sides will be in court on Monday, the trustees represented by attorney Douglas Grover of Manhattan law firm Schlam Stone and Dolan, and Katz by the city Law Department. 

In addition to their legal filings, Grover and Katz, herself an attorney, spent some of this week issuing public statements blasting each other's positions, the former saying the borough president is damaging the library and the latter saying the trustees cannot make a federal case out of their disappointment at being dismissed.

In a Thursday telephone interview with the Queens Chronicle, Katz said the appointment of new trustees could begin "today or tomorrow."

The board members are jointly appointed by the borough president and the mayor, with the two officials taking turns naming them. Katz appointed one new trustee earlier this year, so now it's Mayor de Blasio's turn. The mayor's office could not immediately be reached for comment on when he intends to make an appointment.

Katz said she has three people in mind for the board and is just deciding whom to appoint first. She declined to name them, but noted that one priority for the board, according to state legislation and its bylaws, is geographic diversity, with at least one member from each community district in Queens. That goal hasn't been met, she said, adding that she believes there are no members from Districts 12 and 13 in Southeast Queens, District 8 to the north of 12 and west of 13, or District 4 in the northwestern part of the borough.

"We are anxious to appoint new trustees on the board that will fulfill the educational responsibility of the board," Katz said.

The July 23 purge stemmed from the legal and public relations crisis that has surrounded the library since late January, when the Daily News revealed that Galante, the nonprofit institution's president and CEO, is paid nearly $400,000 a year. He also had a contract that was automatically renewed every day for five years, earns a separate six-figure salary as a part-time financial consultant to a western Long Island school district and spent $27,000 in library funds on a remodeling of his office as part of a renovation project at the Central Library in Jamaica.

The revelations led to an audit by City Comptroller Scott Stringer and a federal criminal investigation. Both are pending. As part of the audit, Stringer sought financial records from the library that traditionally have been withheld — those related to its spending of private donations. About 90 percent of the library's funding comes from the taxpayer, the vast majority of it from the city. Stringer took the library to court to force it to give up all the records he sought, a matter that also is still pending.

The trustees who were dismissed by Katz and de Blasio are all in a majority faction of the board won three votes that angered elected officials in Queens: one against a motion to put Galante on paid leave while the investigations play out; a competing resolution to retain him that was approved; and another against complying with Stringer's demands.

Those votes prompted Katz, along with state Sen. Mike Gianaris (D-Astoria) and Assemblyman Jeff Aubry (D-Corona) to draw up a library reform bill reducing the trustees' terms from five years to three and allowing Katz and de Blasio to dismiss members at any time, as well as putting other restrictions on library personnel. It passed both houses of the state Legislature with only one dissenting vote and was quickly signed by Gov. Cuomo.

Between the bill's passage its signing, the pro-Galante faction of the board called a special meeting to restructure Galante's contract in such a way that he would be paid approximately $800,000 over the next year and a half. Katz and allies including Public Advocate Letitia James demanded the meeting be called off, with James threatening legal action to prevent it, and it was canceled hours before it was to be held.

Using their new powers over the board, Katz and de Blasio then dismissed the eight trustees — all unpaid volunteers — which led to the sextet suing to retain their positions.

Katz told the Chronicle Thursday that she, Aubry and Gianaris had spent months drawing up the legislation, with a number of attorneys making sure it posed no legal problem. And she said she finds it "fascinating" the six plaintiffs would go to court and claim that their dismissal, as well as the law allowing it, is unconstitutional — especially when two of them only had four months left in their terms, and another had been on the board since being appointed by then-Mayor John Lindsay in 1971.

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