Berkeley City Council Resorts to 'Nuclear Option' ... In Library Board Drama


In what was referred to as Berkeley city council’s very own “nuclear option,” Mayor Jesse Arreguin and five other council members voted last week to unseat two Board of Library Trustees members, President Julie Holcomb and Vice-President Jim Novosel.

And, in case you think this is merely humdrum library politics, “there’s no precedent in the history of Berkeley of this happening,” according to Linda Maio, Berkeley’s longest-sitting Councilmember.

The vote was the apex of a two-year-long battle be
tween the Board of Library Trustees — or BOLT, an independent public board that oversees all branches — and Berkeley’s Library staff.

Ultimately, Holcomb and Novosel were ousted, based on BOLT’s “failed management approach to employee relations,” according to Councilmember Kate Harrison.

Library staff and advocates have been aggrieved by BOLT’s policy to discard perfectly good books, retaliation against staff members who criticized trustee policy, and the trustee’s handling of renaming a branch after a civil-rights leader.

Library staff qualms with the Board started with what is now referred as the the “deep weed debacle.” In 2015, trustees switched to an automated sorting system, to determine what books should be “weeded” out of the library. Typically, librarians would control books that remain shelved, and ones that are removed.

Within six months of the automated sorting system’s arrival, some 39,000 books were discarded from the library’s circulation.

BOLT took action against staffers who criticized the weeding debacle, and their speaking out resulted in at least one termination. (The staffer in question has since been reinstated.)

The trustees’ retaliations against the whistleblowers resulted in a nine month long ACLU investigation in 2016, and a letter of no-confidence drafted and signed by 56 library staff members.

After “Deep Weed” incident, BOLT fought changing the name of the south Berkeley branch to Tarea Hall Pittman Library, after the civil-rights leader. BOLT eventually acquiesced — but again, many later criticized the trustees because once unveiled, library advocates argued that the actual size of the civil rights leader’s name was too small, and could barely be seen.

This past month, on March 22, Berkeley librarians and advocates descended to the front steps of the Downtown Public Library, in protest of BOLT. The term “McCarthyism” was thrown around, as were “harassment” and “retaliation,” in reference to the board’s staunch actions against whistleblowers. The protesters called for the formal removal of just Holcomb and Novosel, although the board constitutes five members.

Debbie Carton, a longtime Berkeley librarian, said that a request to remove all five trustees would have been “too politically upheaving.”

In front of the Council last week, Jim Novosel defended his tenure as board vice-president, stating BOLT “[had] broken no laws.”

But many say Novosel’s plea came two years too late. “The board members have had their chance. Give the staff a chance,” said Pat Mullan, a longtime Berkeley librarian.

Some city council members did not seem to think that a fresh start was in BOLT’s best interest. “I don’t think changing the board is going to change the problem,” says Councilmember Susan Wengraf, who called the removal of two trustees a “crash-and-burn approach.”

Abigail Franklin, a fellow library trustee, also stood up to speak at the meeting. “This is a sad situation,” said Franklin, who served as BOLT’s president in 2015, when “Deep Weed” took place.

Council voted to appoint Judy Hunt and Diane Davenport to the two vacant seats. Davenport, a retired Berkeley Librarian of 25 years, had ample support from library staff and advocates.

Hunt’s appointment, however, is more contentious. In the past, library advocates say that the position of trustee is used as a consolation prize, or resumé booster, for those appointed. Now-ousted BOLT president Holcomb also endorsed Hunt, who also ran for commissioner of the Rent Stabilization Board in November and lost.

“Something has to start the healing,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who drafted and introduced the action item to the Council. “I hope and pray that this will start that healing.”