Public hearing for Rockingham's fired library director concludes
BELLOWS FALLS -- A Rockingham Free Public Library Trustee said some of his colleagues were "hell-bent" on getting rid the library director one way or another.
"This thing was a juggernaut," Ray Massucco said in his testimony about fired library director Célina Houlné at the second half of Houlné's public hearing Thursday. "It was like a freight train."
Earlier in the hearing, Houlné responded to what she called false and slanderous accusations from the trustees in front of more than 50 spectators in the Rockingham Town Hall Lower Theatre. Thursday's hearing last four hours and 15 minutes.
She rebutted claims that she misused library funds by raising her salary without board authorization, denied any knowledge of a policy committee meeting to alter the 2008 board personnel policy and denied she was insubordinate to requests for information.
The hearing had been continued from Thursday, Oct. 10, and the trustees have planned a deliberative session for Tuesday to discuss whether to reconsider their vote for termination. It is scheduled for 5 p.m., though the location has not yet been determined.
Houlné's firing is a controversial issue, as many local library supporters believe certain trustees had an agenda that included getting rid of Houlné. The trustees have also been under fire for their decision in May to close the library so a full renovation could be completed.
Trustee Chairwoman Janice Mitchell-Love has repeatedly said there was no ulterior motive for firing Houlné, and her termination was based on an evaluation by the trustees' personnel committee. Mitchell-Love, Vice Chairwoman Deborah Wright and members Hope Brissette, Paige Pietrzak and Laura Senes voted to terminate Houlné while Carolyn Frisa, Pat Fowler and Ray Massucco voted against the motion. Trustee David Buckley was unable to attend that meeting. Since that time, Elayne Clift has joined the board.
Houlné, sitting next to her attorney, Richard Bowen, said Wright's claim that the trustees considered salary increases to be merit-based and discretionary is only her own viewpoint and is inconsistent with the actual policy. She said the board voted on Jan. 9, 2012, to grant a 3 percent cost of living increase, not merit-based pay raises, to the entire staff, including herself.
"There is no written policy, and it has never been the practice, at least since I was hired in July 2008, to require that any staff person, either the director or anyone else, must actually request a cost of living increase when it has been built into the budget," she read from a prepared statement. "As director, I have always implemented the budgeted increases for the rest of the staff as the budget allows, and there was never any expectation expressed by the board that I had to request my own increase. That ‘requirement' exists entirely in Ms. Wright's imagination."
Houlné said she never lied about personnel policy's revision process and she was simply following the historical and current practice and her own job description, which indicates the director must bring proposed changes to the board for discussion. She said the minutes of the Jan. 9, 2012, meeting state the board discussed the proposed language changes to the personnel policy and unanimously approved them.
"The board had the authority and discretion to send the proposed changes back to the policy committee for further review if they had felt any discomfort about approving them at that time," Houlné said. "However, they chose not to do that, but rather to approve them wholeheartedly."
Houlné also responded to the claim that she refused to provide reports and documents and that her own self-interests created toxic mistrust.
"Insubordination is the act of willfully disobeying authority. Refusing to perform an action that is unethical or illegal, is not insubordination; neither is refusing to perform an action that is not within the scope of authority of the person issuing the order," she said.
Houlné said the "dialogue of insubordination" alleged by Wright was actually just her efforts to "conscientiously and vigorously fulfill my ‘duty of care' to ensure the best interests of the library were served, and to prevent actions that were unethical, illegal, against library policies, and counter to the best interests of library."
She said she knew challenging certain board members about their actions would put her at odds with them and bring possible hostility toward her. She said she has been labeled as insubordinate because of her different views.
"For example, this past spring, when Ms. Wright presented the possibility of closing the library for the summer, I responded with a reasoned explanation as to why I thought closing the library was a drastic, unreasonable and unnecessary action to take," she said. "I believed that it was crucial for the community to be provided with library services through the summer, and I proceeded to list the reasons why in a report to the board. As she testified (on Thursday, Oct. 10), Ms. Wright was unhappy with my response, but she is only one member of the board. In the end, the board voted to maintain library services in a temporary location (at 41 The Square)."
Municipal Manager Willis D. "Chip" Stearns II told the Reformer the library's main facility at 65 Westminster St. is expected to reopen to the public on Friday, Nov. 1.
Earlier in the public hearing, Bowen continued where he left off last week and questioned several trustees, who were sworn in to testify. He attempted to go through each trustee's evaluation of Houlné, though (Brissette and Pietrzak) said they did not want to because they felt it should remain confidential.
Fowler, who also owns Village Square Booksellers at 32 The Square, said she rated Houlné as "excellent" or "good" in her evaluation and has worked with her extensively on projects in the past.
"I feel that she had a good rapport with members of the community and they're obviously very supportive of her," Fowler said, gesturing toward the crowd. "Many of them are joint customers of ours."
Massucco, who served on the board from 1996 to 2008 before rejoining in August, said some trustees seemed determined to get rid of Houlné. He said she was not allowed to see the evaluations filled out by the library's staff, and there is nothing to support the complaints made about Houlné in the Corrective Action Plan established against her.
Bowen asked Massucco what he thought of Houlné's job performance.
"In all the directors I've seen, I have never seen a perfect director. I don't think I ever will. I don't think there will ever be a perfect anything," he said. "But she was head and shoulders above the previous two."
Brissette did not want to go over her evaluation of Houlné, but Bowen pointed out that she left many categories blank. She said it was because she did not know how to rank those aspects of Houlné's job performance. Brissette acknowledged Houlné's overwhelming responsibility but said "what she chooses to take on is what she takes on."
She said Houlné's "head-butting, if you will, with the board" was a major reason for her termination. Bowen asked her if she was satisfied with the whole process and she said she was as comfortable as she could be, though everything needs a little tweaking.
Pietrzak said she has been on the board since March and was once employed at the library, working under three directors, including Houlné. She told Bowen nothing happened in her employment that made her want to fire Houlné, but she filled out the evaluation as a trustee -- not as a former employee. She also said the evaluations weren't the only justification for the director's termination.
She said Houlné was regularly insubordinate and often never got requested information to the trustees in a timely fashion. She also said Houlné was quoted in newspapers saying she did not agree with the board's decision to close the library and to move its services to 41 The Square.
"She was very vocal about not being supportive about moving library," she said. "She can't give quotes to the paper because that's not supportive."
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.
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