Continuing to defy the city comptroller and insisting on adhering to an agreement reached with one of his predecessors in 1997, the Queens Library again decided last night to withhold documents that are being sought for an audit.
The library administration has refused the requests of Comptroller Scott Stringer to provide all financial records for the audit, which was prompted earlier this year by revelations about library spending and operations, brought to light primarily by the Daily News.
On Thursday night the Library Board of Trustees voted to continue defying Stringer, passing a resolution that said it would only provide those documents it agreed to make public in a 1997 accord with then-Comptroller Alan Hevesi. Another resolution, which would have forced the administration to provide all the documents Stringer wants, was voted down.
The resolution that passed was sponsored by Trustee Mary Ann Mattone, and the one that failed was sponsored by Trustee Judy Bergtraum.
The comptroller has taken the library to court to negate the agreement with Hevesi and force it to provide all documents.
Library spokeswoman Joanne King confirmed the votes but could not say what the tally on either was, saying the institution does not release those. The library, though it provides a municipal service, is a private, state-authorized entity under contract with the city.
King provided the following prepared statement:
"Queens Library believes in accountability and transparency. The library has released all requested financial documentation in accordance with the court ordered agreement of 1997. The audit rules have been the standard for several previous administrations. It appropriately includes audit authority over every dime provided by the City, fines and fees collected and book sale funds. As an additional layer of transparency, the library voluntary provided access to the Worker's Compensation Fund as requested."
In addition to Stringer, two other key Queens officials have requested that the library release all requested documents: Borough President Melinda Katz, who is responsible for appointing half of the board's regular members, but as a first-term BP has only appointed one so far; and City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), who chairs the Council's main library oversight committee, is the body's majority leader, and was a library official before winning elective office.
None of the elected officials could immediately be reached for comment on the Library Board votes, but the offices of Stringer and Katz said statements would be forthcoming later today.
UPDATE: Katz and Stringer issued a joint statement blasting the board's decision, the full text of which follows this article.
King added in an interview that the library has provided all documents related to spending of public funds. The library gets about 80 percent of its funding from the city, with the rest coming from the state and federal governments and private donations.
She said Stringer has made the same request of the city's two other library systems, the Brooklyn and New York libraries, and that both have taken the same stance as Queens.
Stringer spokesman Eric Sumberg said that in fact the Brooklyn and New York libraries have not done what the Queens Library is doing.
King said the library's refusal to provide all the documents Stringer seeks traces back to its founding by Andrew Carnegie, who wanted the institution to remain free of governmental control. It was founded in 1896 and became contracted to the city in 1907.
"The libraries were intended from the beginning to be free of government control," King told the Queens Chronicle, " ... where government can tell the libraries what information they can provide, to protect intellectual freedom."
She continued, "This is not a unique situation in the 120 years of the public library. We have had over the years many requests to change the audit rules."
Hevesi had taken the library to court over the rules, and the agreement the library is citing regarding Stringer's audit is what was "decided by the courts" in 1997, King said.
She then likened the situation to a hypothetical request by the city to audit all records of, for example, the Queens Chronicle, saying how that would be improper.
This reporter responded by pointing out that the Chronicle is not under contract to provide a municipal service, as the library is.
King responded, "All of the money that is being provided by the municipality is open to them," meaning the comptroller's office. "There is not a dime that is being sheltered from them."
The audit, along with increased oversight by the City Council and a probe into any possible criminal activity by the city Department of Investigation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was prompted by revelations about and criticism of library financial practices under its president and CEO, Tom Galante. Among the criticisms are that Galante's salary and benefits, which total just under $450,000, are excessive; that he may not be giving the library his full attention when he is working a side job for a Long Island school district that pays him another six figures each year; that renovations to the Central Library in Jamaica included unnecessary luxuries for his office; and that his ties to a contractor who has gotten a number of construction jobs from the library makes it appear as if there is a potential conflict of interest.
The revelations prompted Katz and Van Bramer to call for Galante to take a leave of absence until all the investigations are concluded, but he hung onto his position when the Library Board voted 9-9 on the question, maintaining the status quo. One Queens official, state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), says he should step down altogether. Others have not issued public statements.
The library has responded to the crisis by saying Galante does an excellent job and that his pay is in line with that of other CEOs of nonprofit organizations of similar size and scope. Galante says he's a workaholic who manages to do both his jobs well, and that he never does work for the Long Island school district, Elmont, on library time or using library resources.
The Stringer-Katz statement reads:
On Thursday evening, the Board of Trustees of the Queens Borough Public Library voted to reject a resolution submitted by members of the Board to have the library fully comply with Comptroller Scott M. Stringer’s audit of the library.
“What happened last night at the Queens Borough Public Library was a disgrace,” Comptroller Stringer said. “It is a shame that the members of the Queens Library board who voted against their own colleagues’ resolution have continued to embrace library management’s anti-transparency policies. No public entity is above the law. Parliamentary maneuvers may buy them some time, but rest assured that I am determined to make sure that taxpayers know how their money is being spent at this library system.”
“Once again the Queens Borough Public Library board has raised questions about the execution of their fiduciary responsibility,” Borough President Katz said. “By failing to pass this resolution, this board has put itself firmly on the wrong side of any resident of Queens who wishes to see their library run properly. This institution continues to move further and further away from accountability at the exact moment it should be embracing transparency. The Comptroller is acting in the best interest of New Yorkers by trying to find out how taxpayer money is spent. This board is hiding the Queens Library from necessary sunlight and I am committed to making sure that a bright light is shone on this issue.”