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Queens Chronicle

Queens Library Board discusses ex-officio status

Vote on public advocate’s proposal now could be put off for months

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Posted: Thursday, May 29, 2014 10:30 am | Updated: 5:20 am, Wed Dec 24, 2014.

A new state law will at least temporarily keep ex-officio members of the embattled Queens Library Board of Trustees from participating in matters involving audits, conflict of interest and whistleblower matters.

And in a related matter from Thursday’s board meeting, a proposal from Public Advocate Letitia James to give her representative and other ex-officio board members a vote on board matters might not be voted on until the fall if it is included in an overall reassessment of the board’s structure and composition.

The five ex-officio members include those representing James, Mayor de Blasio, Borough President Melinda Katz, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Comptroller Scott Stringer.

They serve on board committees, but cannot vote as ex-officio members do on library boards in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

The board on Thursday voted to adjust its bylaws as a result of the Nonprofit Revitalization Act of 2013, which overhauled the state’s rules and regulations for such groups.

One of the new regulations requires that matters of audits, whistleblower accusations and conflicts of interest be handled only by “independent trustees.”

Attorney Rebecca Brazzano, serving as counsel to the board, said the definition in the state statute does not allow board members who are employees of entities that have given money to the library in the last three years to be classified as independent trustees.

All five ex-officio members are employed by New York City, which provides the Queens Library with the vast majority of its funding.

Brazzano said her interpretation is far easier to understand if one just substitutes a different entity for New York City.

“If a trustee is employed by the Bank of New York and the bank had given money to the board, that person certainly would not be considered an independent trustee,” she said, adding that it would be the same for TD Bank, Coca-Cola or any other potential benefactor.

“While that may meet the letter of the law, I don’t think it was the Legislature’s intention to bar us from hearing these matters,” Elisa Velazquez, Katz’s proxy said.

But Brazzano, Trustee Joseph Ficalora and other members said that it is the letter of the law with which the library must be in compliance by July 1.

They said further inquiries will be made to the office of state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

“This isn’t permanent,” Ficalora said. “We can always go back and change things after July 1.”

A spokeswoman for Schneiderman said his office stands ready to assist any nonprofit seeking advice on applying the new regulations, but did not specifically comment on the library situation.

Brazzano also said nothing would prevent an ex-officio member from serving on the board’s Audit Committee.

As for restoring ex-officios’ voting privileges, which they have not enjoyed on the Queens Library Board since 1907, board members said they would be willing to take the matter up this summer at some sort of undetermined meeting aimed at examining the entire board.

But that could mean a formal vote on James’ proposal might not take place until at least October due to the board’s summer break.

Larry Schimmel, representing James, said ex-officios, like the 19 voting members appointed by the mayor and borough president, are appointed for one purpose — to make sure the library succeeds and thrives.

“I don’t understand what seems to be an ‘us-vs.-them’ feeling,” he said addressing the board. “In five years, every one of us might not be here. We couldn’t take over control of the board even if we wanted to. There’s no way the five of us are always going to agree on everything.”

When asked afterward, he acknowledged that a good example is the current disagreement among their bosses over levels of police staffing in Mayor de Blasio’s proposed budget.

James and Mark-Viverito want to create 1,000 new positions on the NYPD; de Blasio, citing a tight fiscal situation, would rather not spend the $94 million right now, particularly as crime rates keep dropping with current staffing levels.

James first proposed the library measure in March after controversy began to swirl around the library’s finances and some actions of CEO Tom Galante.

The matter was tabled in the April meeting due to its coming up on the agenda well after 10 p.m.

Some ex-officio members said that had the measure passed that night, a resolution to place Galante on leave would not have ended in a 9-9 tie, defeating the motion.

In addition to legislation proposed due to the controversy, the FBI and the city’s Department of Investigation have opened a criminal probe that is taking more than a casual look at the library’s finances.

A spokesman for James said the public advocate’s office is continuing to monitor the situation.

A Katz spokesman said the borough president believes October is too long to wait for a vote on voting privileges, though she does believe that there are a number of things that could be properly addressed during some sort of initiative over the summer.

Stringer’s office declined to comment last week.

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