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Monday, June 17, 2024

Opinion: Most of the Indianapolis Public Library board needs to resign

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By WILDSTYLE PASCHALL

I am writing this letter to the Indianapolis Public Library board because, with the exception of Dr. Patricia Payne and Dr. Khaula Murtadha, I am embarrassed by the continued incompetence, mismanagement and malfeasance this board has displayed with its governance and CEO search, along with the complete and utter contempt it’s shown for community voice in Indianapolis.

The community has spoken and will no longer permit this board to sabotage its public library system and staff. The community needs the IndyPL board to resign.

The IndyPL board has made a series of critical missteps going back to at least 2020 that led to this moment, including doing nothing as former IndyPL trustee Dr. Terri Jett was being pushed off the board and her work limited by board president Judge Jose Salinas in retaliation for doing her job to hold then-CEO Jackie Nytes accountable and address mounting problems with library personnel and operations. Proper oversight from the IndyPL board at that time likely would have allowed former CEO Jackie Nytes to keep her job and legacy intact.

But some of these problems finally came to a head at a May 24, 2021, board meeting.

Salinas took preemptive action to mute former employee Bree Flannelly on a board call she was scheduled to speak on, just because Nytes had sent an email to the board implying she was lying and would not allow her to speak until Dr. Payne and Dr. Murtadha intervened.

Other trustees of the IndyPL board took no action to address the relationship between the board president, board and Nytes, let alone the problems highlighted by numerous past and present employees in the press that really did make our library system seem like it was being run like a plantation. These failures only encouraged more problematic behavior from Nytes and did her no favors in the long run.

In July 2021, Jackie Nytes accidentally sent the following email to Eagle Branch staff:

 “… I assume you have seen the recent press about the Library, much of which is the result of some personal disagreements,” Nytes wrote. “We are talking about a letter from Black community leaders supporting me, the board and the Library. This could be sent as a Letter to the Editor of the Star, IBJ and Recorder with multiple signatures. DO you think you could recruit some Black leaders to sign it? Would you sign it? I don’t want to offend by asking, but it is clear that the Library is getting damaged by the current narrative and I just don’t think it is an accurate narrative and I am trying to counter it!”

She sent it to Eagle Branch staff members instead of the intended recipient, and it exposed she was conspiring with someone else (possibly IndyPL trustees) to obtain a letter of support from “Black community leaders” characterizing the allegations of discrimination as “personal disagreements” to gaslight the community.

Still the IndyPL board did nothing. It was only in August 2021, when a major funder, Central Indiana Community Foundation, stepped up to demand action about the constant scandals before funding IndyPL again, that Nytes finally resigned, allowing the library to move on.

In September 2021 the IndyPL board spent $100,000 on a climate study that later revealed IndyPL staffing disparities compared to similarly sized library systems in other cities. It also reveals severe DEI issues among the staff, morale issues with employees feeling overworked but underappreciated, and deep mistrust of management. Only 45% of the 458 employees surveyed believed satisfactory action would be taken to address discrimination, harassment, bullying, etc., while 80% of employees surveyed trusted their colleagues to do the right thing for the organization, but only 29% trust the board to do the right thing or to even advance diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility.

All of this confirmed there were serious problems with the library system that weren’t being addressed, directly supporting the allegations brought to the press, and yet the board took no substantive action to address its own role in contributing to the library’s climate problems.

In April of 2022 the IndyPL board formed a CEO search committee and hired a search firm at the cost of $27,000 that ultimately ended up finding two candidates: Dr. Gabriel Morley, former New Orleans Public Library CEO who resigned in a residency scandal, and Nichelle M. Hayes, a third-generation Indianapolis resident who had been running IndyPL for the previous eight months.

The IndyPL board said it was satisfied with Morley’s answers about his abrupt departure from his previous job in New Orleans that was caused by Morley holding the job for nearly two years while living in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Morley was also accused of spreading lies and misinformation in support of a failed public referendum to cut New Orleans library funding by 40%. A librarian who’s worked at New Orleans Public Library for a decade described to the IndyStar a library director in Morley who failed to establish safety protocols or acquire protective equipment for staff after reopening following the COVID-19 lockdown, among other serious issues. Morley also wrote a problematic fiction novel with the main characters being African American teenagers from Mississippi with stereotypical names like “Ray Ray” because he “could not find contemporary, meaningful books for young adult boys.”

Many in the community are confused how such a flawed candidate made it as a finalist in the first place.

Hayes as a candidate didn’t have such issues as she’s a highly respected Indianapolis resident invested in the community by serving on numerous community boards throughout Indiana, including the Indiana Black Librarians Network, NAACP, Association for the Study of African American Life and History and also a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. Hayes is also the founding director of IndyPL’s Center for Black Literature and Culture and an inspiration to so many in the community.

The two candidates’ presentations made it clear who was most fit to lead the library and who was not. Despite the IndyPL board and search firm allowing Morley to speak for more than 26 minutes, he didn’t say much or earn the trust of the audience filled with community members. During Morley’s long, rambling presentation, he failed to articulate a clear plan to advance the diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility work to address the issues that IndyPL is trying to overcome. In fact, he seemed too afraid to even say the words diversity, equity or race at all during his presentation. He gave troubling answers on how he’d treat homeless individuals to hostile architecture that would discourage loitering. When asked about his short tenures at both library systems he ran, Morley responded saying he thought four years was a long time to be a library director. He even seemed to fumble a softball-type question from a child asking why the “Magic Tree House” books were in Spanish. I, along with everyone I talked to afterward, considered his presentation to be a trainwreck.

Haye gave her presentation in 15 minutes and spoke clearly about her strengths and accomplishments, including getting IndyPL staff an additional $4 million in compensation. She spoke of making the library a safe space for all employees and the staff representing people of all genders, races and abilities. Hayes laid out a plan to continue the library’s DEI initiatives, increase pay and training for staff and seek additional funding. When asked about homeless individuals using the library she immediately responded that they are patrons as well and that it’s very important that we treat them with respect and courtesy. When asked a “softball” question about the “Magic Tree House” books, Hayes’ simple but poignant answer — that some people’s language is Spanish and they want to enjoy “Magic Tree House” in their language, too — showed us how much inclusion is ingrained in her as a person.

I never even considered the possibility that the IndyPL board would ignore all the facts, the clear difference in presentations and tremendous outpouring from the community at all levels supporting Hayes to take on a permanent role as a public servant she’s best suited to at our public library. I never believed the IndyPL board would be foolish enough to believe they’re smarter than the 630 Indy residents comprised of parents, library employees, former library employees, teachers, college professors, activists, community organizers, nonprofit leaders, cultural institutions, journalists, social workers, attorneys, artists and architects who supported Hayes in an online petition ahead of the vote, not to mention the hundreds of others and multiple Indianapolis City-County Council councilors who all publicly supported her as well. I never thought the board was so arrogant that they would stand like George Wallace did in front of the schoolhouse doors of Alabama to uphold white supremacy and block progress at Indianapolis Public Library, but I was naive.

Throughout this sad affair where IndyPL board members have tarnished their personal and professional relationships, the sole bright spot for me is the power and resiliency of community voice in Indianapolis. As the IndyPL board continued to facilitate scandals at the public library, the community continued to turn up the heat to get the problems addressed. When an IndyPL board drunk with its own hubris and contempt for community hired an unfit candidate in Morley to lead our public library, the community succeeded in working together to smite that bad decision by encouraging him to read the room and decline the job the board was setting him up to fail in.

As a pastor I consider a friend and mentor says, public servants need to remember they are public servants and not public masters. The IndyPL board exercises power on our behalf to provide oversight for our public library. Rather than this becoming yet another protracted public fight that the board will lose, I’m begging the IndyPL board to resign now and allow our library system and community to move forward. If you care about this city at all, I’m begging you to resign and allow this community to heal, but to be clear, I’m begging, the community isn’t asking; they’re demanding, and it has a track record of getting results.

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