Lewis County commissioner calls for change in Timberland Regional Library administration

By Alex Brown

The Chronicle

Timberland Regional Library needs to oust its leadership, Lewis County Commissioner Edna Fund said Monday, following the revelation that administrators prevented staff from warning the public as they crafted a plan to close a third of the system’s branches.

“They need to make some changes in the administration and director position,” Fund said. “Leaving the public out of any decision is unconscionable.”

Without calling out Library Director Cheryl Heywood by name, Fund had tough words for the TRL leadership team.

“I am appalled at the director and the folks in the administrative services part of Timberland,” she said. “The way they actually tried to accomplish this by saying, ‘You can have a public meeting, but it won’t make any difference. We’re going to close you.’”

Fund’s comments came following the release of emails obtained by The Chronicle, in which Timberland administrators plotted the closure of Randle’s Mountain View Library as far back as July, while repeatedly denying branch manager Mary Prophit’s requests to inform patrons their facility was on the chopping block. Prophit was told that Timberland didn’t want the public to get the false impression that their input could change the decision.

Timberland’s board voted to renew the Mountain View lease in September, following a massive public backlash when a last-minute leak of information alerted residents to the issue. The board also put on hold the Capital Facilities Proposal, a document that would have closed a third of the system’s 27 libraries, including Randle.

The discussion Monday came before a vote by the Lewis County Board of Commissioners to reappoint Packwood resident Hal Blanton to the Timberland board. Much like the public, Timberland’s board was kept in the dark about the Randle situation and system-wide closure plan, and members voted unanimously to stave off both following widespread outcry.

Blanton has talked about the importance of saving rural library branches, while also steering away from offering much criticism of the TRL administration.

“It’s not surprising they would kick a lot of things around,” he said, when briefed on the emails that TRL administrators were planning the Randle closure months before the public was informed. “They should be discussing things. At the same time, the proper procedure is that it goes through the (board’s) Facilities Committee. … The fact that they would brainstorm and come up with things like that doesn’t surprise me.”

Ultimately, he said the “processes and procedures” that allows the board to have the final say on closures make Timberland a good system, adding that any shortfall in public notification was more likely an oversight than a cover-up.

“Nobody’s trying to hide anything,” he said.

Several citizens took issue with Blanton’s comments, as reported in The Chronicle, and urged the county commission not to reappoint Blanton to the board, saying he couldn’t be trusted with oversight of a deceitful administration.

“We don’t need somebody to be appointed like that,” said Judy Bell. “We need somebody who is an independent thinker, who will look at the facts and think about Lewis County. … We need an independent person, one who is accountable to us.”

Bell was followed by Peggy Barth, who echoed that sentiment.

“It points to him serving the Timberland Regional Library administration, and not the people he should be representing,” she said. “It’s time to a take a good look at the administration of the library, and that starts with having people on the board who will question their actions that are not in line with what people want.”

Fund said she was also surprised to read Blanton’s defense of Timberland’s administration.

“When I read the quotes in the newspaper, I was taken back a bit,” she said. “That’s not the comments I’d received from him.”

She speculated that he was used to staying within TRL’s protocols, avoiding commentary on staff matters. Before the vote to reappoint Blanton, she said she had one directive for him and his fellow board members: “Will they take any large steps to the administrative structure of Timberland?”

Commissioners unanimously approved Blanton for another term, saying that his commitment to rural libraries was unquestioned, even if his comments on the administration were not sufficiently forceful.

“I do know, speaking with Hal, that he does not want to shut down any library,” said Commissioner Gary Stamper. “I do have confidence in his ability. … He’s been at the east end of the county for his entire life.”

Fund also said Blanton would serve the county well.

“Hal lives in Packwood, and I know he does not want Packwood to close,” she said. “(Board members) were kept in the dark about this potential closure. … Hal has been a stalwart. This caught him flat-footed.”