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 Thursday 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 May 8 the Library Board of Trustees voted to continue refusing 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 offered by Trustee Mary Ann Mattone, and the one that failed was brought forward by Trustee Judy Bergtraum.
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.
The comptroller has taken the library to state Supreme Court to negate the agreement with Hevesi and force it to provide all documents.
The board’s insistence on maintaining the library’s position prompted scathing criticism from Stringer, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside).
“What happened last night at the Queens Borough Public Library was a disgrace,” Stringer said in a prepared statement issued Friday. “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.”
“By failing to pass [the Bergtraum] resolution, this board has put itself firmly on the wrong side of any resident of Queens who wishes to see their library run properly,” Katz said. “This institution continues to move further and further away from accountability at the exact moment it should be embracing transparency.”
Van Bramer, interviewed Tuesday, said he is “incredibly disturbed” that the board voted against complying with the comptroller’s request. He said he was told the vote against Bergtraum’s resolution was 9-7 and that he thinks the one approving Mattone’s was the same.
“Any attempt to avoid transparency by hiding behind old agreements just makes it seem like there’s something to hide,” said Van Bramer, who chairs the Council’s main library oversight committee, is the majority leader, and worked for the library before winning elective office. He added that the only way for the library to get out of the crisis it faces is transparency.
“They’ve lost the faith and confidence of a lot of elected officials and people who care a great deal about the library system and are usually the biggest supporters of the library system,” he said.
King provided a prepared statement asserting that the library “believes in accountability and transparency” and pointing out that it has released all the documents it is required to under the 1997 agreement, as well as its Worker’s Compensation Fund.
She added in an interview that the library has provided all documents related to spending of public funds, just not those dealing with private monies. 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 noted that Stringer has made the same request of the city’s two other library systems, the Brooklyn and New York libraries, and claimed both have taken the same stance as Queens.
Stringer spokesman Eric Sumberg said that is not true.
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.
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 make 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.