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Library system’s disputed budget approved; questions remain about leadership & records

LAPLACE — St. John the Baptist Parish Library Board of Control member Brannetter James said this week’s meeting in Reserve is a step toward discussing financial, legal and personnel disputes with decency and respect.

“It was definitely better than the last meeting,” James said. “It was about 50 percent better. We have to be very careful how we talk to people and what we say to people. To get respect, you have to have respect.”

The previous Library Board meeting, held Oct. 8 at the Garyville branch, saw tempers flare in disagreement over policy and procedure. While the Library Board typically convenes quarterly, inaction in approving a Library Budget earlier this month called for a special meeting.

Members revisited discussion on Library leadership concerns, unable to agree on whether critiques for Library Director Trina Smith should be discussed in a public meeting or in a future executive session before the matter was tabled.

A revised 2018 and a 2019 budget were approved this time around, albeit with hesitation from Board members concerned next year’s budget will suffer from the same pitfalls encountered this year.

The seven members in attendance, along with St. John Parish Library Director Trina Smith, agreed to readdress the Library’s fully-funded health insurance policy for employees and their families, projected to cost a whopping $750,000 within a $4.46 million 2019 budget.

Library Board President Virgie Jarrow-Johnson presented an option to offer insurance only to St. John Library employees without extending benefits to families.

Acknowledging the projected 2018 budget was not in line with actual spending for temporary workers, operating expenses, Capital projects and other areas, Library Board members agreed to review the 2019 budget on a quarterly basis.

Jarrow-Johnson said she feels the Board is moving in a positive direction and will be able to amend the 2019 budget as quotes on insurance and forensic auditing services become available.

“This time, we were in a position where everyone was on the same page in what needs to be done,” Jarrow-Johnson said. “We just need to more or less have all the facts. Sometimes it’s late when we are getting the information for the meetings.”

Board member Maria Victoria Coy said she is sickened by the Library Board’s attitude toward budgeting and sees the quarterly review agreement as too little, too late, considering she has been pushing the idea without success since joining the board last year.

According to Coy, the public cannot be assured the 2018 budget is fair and accurate because spending records were made out to Capital One without listing specific monetary uses or vendors.

Despite numbers not adding up, Coy said Board members had no choice but to approve the budget; Keith Rovira, CPA for the St. John Parish Library System, stressed that failure to do so before the last 15 days of the year would open the Board up to a lawsuit.

“No one here knows how a budget works,” Coy said. “I don’t like voting for things I know are inaccurate, but we had to.”

The approved budgets could also change with a quote from outside audit firm Carr, Riggs & Ingram CPAs and Advisors, proposed by member Lisa Tregre-Wilder and unanimously approved by the Board in hopes of gaining clarity in an ongoing, alleged theft investigation.

Tregre-Wilder said Library leadership is not at liberty to discuss details of the investigation because nothing has been proven.

As of press time Friday, CR&I was preparing a survey of the financial investigation and had not yet provided a quote of cost of services, according to Tregre-Wilder.

“This firm has worked with the chief financial advisor for the Parish and with the School Board,” Tregre-Wilder said. “When more details are available, we will inform the public.”

Leadership

Smith’s leadership as Director remained a source of conflict during the meeting, which developed into legal confusion.

Library Board President Virgie Jarrow-Johnson said accessibility of information has led to communication struggles, noting Board members know little about day-to-day branch operations handled by Smith.

Coy expressed her disappointment that only one person responded with suggestions to her 12-step Director’s Post Evaluation Plan, developed in response to the Oct. 8 meeting and emailed out to Board members.

According to Coy, the plan outlines job expectations for the St. John Parish Library Director to give Smith a fair shot at developing into an effective leader.

Before the conversation could progress, Board members questioned why the matter was not reserved for the more private executive session.

Board member Elois Joseph maintained it was grossly unfair to Smith to reference her private evaluation in a public meeting.

James agreed on the need for privacy, stating after the meeting she’s received feedback from the community that conflict is best resolved within, not broadcast to the world.

“I don’t believe in reprimanding people in front of everybody,” James said. “When there are employees sitting there in the room, that makes it harder for (Smith) to be a supervisor.”

Smith said discussions on leadership initiated at the last meeting felt like a series of targeted personal accusations.

Attorney Henri Dufresne, legal advisor for the Library Board, warned Board members to tread carefully in moving the agenda item to a future executive session.

He said standards of a job position must be addressed publicly in accordance to Louisiana Open Meetings Law. However, discussions on character and mental state are among the exceptions that permit an executive session.

Unsure of whether the Post Evaluation plan is specific to Smith or applicable to the job title as a whole, members opted to table the matter until a legal opinion can be rendered.

Dufresne said legal opinions take a minimum of 45 days depending on the matter’s complexity.

Legal confusion presented another roadblock to approving at least four meetings’ worth of minutes deemed inaccurate by Coy.

Smith attributed the discrepancies to a low-quality voice recorder, which has since been replaced, while James said people talking over each other during meetings make accurate transcription impossible.

Dufresne said minutes do not need to be a complete transcription, but a record of important topics and decisions, which must, by law, be amended during public meetings.

Members tabled the topic for the next meeting, likely to be scheduled next month.