Timberland Regional Library Board votes to nix closures as administration takes heat

  • Thu Nov 29th, 2018 5:00pm
  • News

By Alex Brown

The Chronicle

The board of the Timberland Regional Library voted Wednesday to remove the lingering threat of branch closures, but faced questions about eroded public trust in the library system’s administration.

“It was so clear that people did not want to see libraries closed, that their libraries matter to them,” said board president Brian Zylstra. “There’s been some trust lost in different communities, and that’s very regretful, and we needed to do something to regain that, and tonight we took a major step toward doing that.”

The vote came after months of public backlash following the Capital Facilities Proposal released by the Timberland administration in September. That document called for the closure of a third of the 27 libraries in TRL’s five-county system and was crafted without the knowledge of the board or the public.

In October, the board voted to stave off any closures until at least August of next year, in the meantime creating an ad-hoc committee to look at Timberland’s budget issues and the new service proposals outlined in the document. On Wednesday, the board dissolved that committee and voted to take closures off the table altogether.

In the meantime, members will create a planning committee to address TRL’s projected $700,000 deficit next year and ways to look at new methods of service.

Board member Corby Varness noted the looming closure questions have stressed residents in the affected branches, and it was important for Timberland to put that worry to rest.

“The agony in our communities is quite real,” she said, referencing a multitude of messages she’d received from patrons of various libraries.

While the decision met with wide acclaim, a number of community members and Timberland employees came forward during the public comment portion of the meeting to express concern, following a Chronicle story earlier this month that disclosed emails among Timberland administrators discussing closing a library as far back as July and repeatedly silencing staff who tried to warn the public.

“We all read the most recent article in The Chronicle. It was very disturbing, disappointing, and it was sadly not particularly surprising,” said Kelly Walker, a staff member in the Centralia branch, pointing to staff surveys that have indicated branch employees feel the administration lacks communication and transparency.

Walker mentioned an all-staff training day in September at which many Timberland staffers called for better communication from leadership. That training took place less than two weeks before the closure proposal was released, but administrators kept mum about the proposal even after being challenged to be more transparent.

At the same meeting, Mary Prophit, library manager of the Mountain View branch, presented an award to fellow Randle staffer Judi Brummett. Emails show that she had spent the weeks leading up to that day pleading to inform the public that the Randle library was on the verge of closure, only to be silenced repeatedly and forced to apologize by her superiors.

“Mary had to be there that day hearing accolades about her library while knowing that the administration planned to close it, and that she was forbidden from telling her staff and community,” Walker said.

Walker wasn’t the only one who spoke up to defend Prophit. Nathan Coutsoubos, principal at White Pass Elementary School, praised his local librarian.

“If East Lewis County was its own separate country — and we think so sometimes — we would put Mary on our postage stamp,” he said.

Coutsoubos called the administration’s approach “muzzle and mislead or lie and deny,” and called for the board to investigate the process that led to the closure plan. He also referenced the $10,000 that Timberland spent to receive public relations advice from a Seattle-based consultant in the aftermath of the closure backlash.

“Trust has been broken, and we need you the board to fix it,” he said. “Let’s get some sunshine. … Don’t spend $10,000 on terrible advice to lie.”

Lewis County Commissioner Edna Fund also asked for more transparency.

“Analyze where this firestorm started,” she said. “Where can we learn from this? I hope the administration has learned to keep their trustees informed, to keep their staff informed.”

Fund, who has called for the removal of Library Director Cheryl Heywood, also urged the Timberland leadership to be less evasive with the press, advice that soon became relevant.

“You know, do I need to answer this at this point?” Heywood told The Chronicle immediately following the meeting. “Because you’re just going to twist what I’m going to say.”

Heywood was asked about a staff memo she sent Tuesday in which she said District Manager Trisha Cronin was “unfairly criticized” and “taken out of context” by The Chronicle, when reporting that she told Prophit that informing residents about the possible closure would unfairly give them the idea they could change the decision. Asked to clarify the accusation, Heywood said it was about Mary Prophit. Pressed for specifics, she said the following:

“Um, asking about, um — I’m trying to remember now, I’ve had a lot on my mind,” Heywood said.

After a 12-second pause in the recorded interview, Heywood then made the comment that The Chronicle would twist her words if she spoke further. Told she had just been asked about such alleged word-twisting and failed to provide an example, she went on to say that Prophit had been kept from telling the community about the possibility of a closure so that Timberland could evaluate all its options with the landlord and then present them to the board for a decision.

Due to TRL Library Director Cheryl Heywood’s criticism of The Chronicle’s reporting, we’ve included the transcript of her Wednesday interview here:

The Chronicle: I just wanted to ask about the memo that went out to staff yesterday, just to clarify which misperceptions or whatever it was that you were referring to in the reporting.

Cheryl Heywood: It was about Mary Prophit.

TC: Specifically?

CH: Um, Asking about, um — I’m trying to remember now, I’ve had a lot on my mind.

TC: OK.

(12-second pause)

You know, do I need to answer this at this point? Because you’re just going to twist what I’m going to say.

TC: I’m asking you what I’m alleged to have twisted, and I’m not getting an answer.

CH: OK. So when Mary was asked to wait to share with the community about the lease, because we were bringing back all the options, because there were multiple options to talk to the board about the lease for Mountain View. We have to present all these different options of the length of time and the fact that the landlord was deciding whether or not to sell the property. Basically, we were bringing back all the options to the board to consider what they wanted to do, because they are the decision-makers when it comes to the length of the lease. They then make the decision to give the library director the authority to sign the lease. So that was it.

TC: Thank you.

During the meeting, Walker — the Centralia branch staffer — challenged that narrative, also referenced in Heywood’s memo, that closure listings were only intended as a starting point for discussion.

“The responsibility lies with the entire administration team,” she said. “On the one hand, today we have administration denying that the closure was anything other than a suggestion. On the other hand, we have dated emails and a gag order on Mary that indicate this was a done deal.”

Lhisa Reish, president of the AFSCME Local 3758 union that represents Timberland employees, also challenged the administration, alongside the union’s supervisor unit secretary Holly Paxson.

“Our union was given no prior knowledge of (the proposal) before it was released to the public,” Reish said. “Our members are often the frontline staff who field questions and complaints about this proposal from community members, and they do not always have a manager on-site to refer patrons to. This is a difficult and unsustainable position for our members.”

That tension has been felt by Walker as well, who said branch workers were told to refer questions back the administration following The Chronicle story about the inner workings of the closure process and the silencing of staff. That’s difficult to do, she said, when she doesn’t trust the leaders to whom she’s supposed to be directing her patrons.

“My patrons trust me, and that says a lot right now considering the current mood” she said. “Your last goodwill ambassadors are your staff, and you’re not using us. I have patrons coming to me upset and wanting answers. My job is to help people. … My job is not to lie and misdirect people. This has put me in an incredibly difficult position. Do I toe the party line and send my patrons back to an untrustworthy administration for their answers?”

Following the meeting, Zylstra was asked about Heywood’s position, given the questions of trust raised by the public and Timberland employees, as well as the call for her ouster by Fund, who sits on the Lewis County Commission which appointed Zylstra to the Timberland board.

“We’re doing an evaluation on Cheryl as executive director,” he said. “That’s what we do each year at this time. We’re in the middle of the evaluation process. I can’t comment on that, because it’s still in draft form. I can’t comment until it’s been finalized, which will occur in December.”

That evaluation will be presented at the board’s next meeting on Dec. 19.

The board also opted Wednesday to send a letter to Washington Department of Natural Resources, urging it to consider the effects of its timber harvesting decisions. Since the mid-1990s, TRL’s timber revenue has been cut by more than half as harvests have waned.