I’ve begun slogging through the recently proposed and all new Altadena Library District Board of Trustees Policies intended to replace the existing and long-outdated Board Bylaws.
By Rene Amy
My review suggests that a lot of additional work is needed, perhaps enough to warrant a careful rewrite.
Strangely, the proposed Policies create the impression that the state’s open meeting law (the Brown Act) is the maximum degree of openness allowed to the Board, despite many recent statements by Board members that the Brown Act is simply a starting point. The proposed Policies even mention “the constraints” of the Brown Act.
Concern about transparency of future Board actions
The proposed Policies create further concern about the transparency of future Board actions by including in the proposed Policies an arcane provision in the state’s Education Code. This provision predates the Brown Act and allows the Board to hold “special meetings” with just 12 hours notice to any local media that have requested it in advance, and posting notice online and onsite.
Imagine the Altadena Library District Board president deciding at 7 a.m. on a Sunday that there should be a meeting at 7 p.m. that evening with only the described notices. Under the proposed Policies, that scenario could be very real, as real as the not-so-very-long-ago illegal, secret, off-site meeting the ALD Board actively schemed to hold.
First Amendment issue?
Oddly, the proposed Policies would shut down public speakers if they publicly criticize library employees. Isn’t there a First Amendment issue there?
Actual purpose of the library
There is no acknowledgement of the actual purpose of the library. Further, the proposed Policies fail to require any self-assessment by Board members, any minimum frequency of attendance at Board meetings, or a specific method for censuring a Board member for failure to attend meetings. These are two standout issues from the past. Prior Board members routinely failed to attend one-half or more Board meetings, leading to governance imbalances. Board members ignored repeated public calls to complete self-assessments as provided in the Board Handbook.
What is a rule, what is suggested?
The proposed Policies contain a curious mixing of imperative (“must,” “shall,” “will”), aspirational (“should,” “are encouraged”), and allowable (“may,” “can”) voices. These words are intermingled and combined to the point that it becomes confusing as to what is a rule, what is suggested, and what will be tolerated. Weirdly, many of the allowable Policies easily could be ignored and replaced by the Board at any time, and have been ignored routinely in the past.
Language matters, and precision of meaning can avoid costly problems in future. The old military adage that “proper prior planning prevents piss-poor performance” is applicable to nearly all types of activity, and is especially applicable to the rules of government. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Language needs to be straightforward and completely unambiguous.
Lack of a timely evaluation
Under the proposed Policies, for example, the Board “shall undertake” (but not necessarily complete) an annual review of the Library Director’s performance. In large measure, the lack of a timely evaluation of the Library Director sparked the last brouhaha that engulfed the Library and caused the Board and Library to lose much credibility.
Possibility of future conflict
The proposed Policies describe specific responsibilities and duties of the Library Director, but the job description of the Library Director does not reflect these responsibilities and duties. The possibility of future conflict exists.
A multi-page section details the rules (and potential legal liability) applicable to a Board member in order to travel to conferences and educational seminars on behalf of the library. Shouldn’t the Policies encourage Board members (who are volunteers) to be educated and informed? Rules for reimbursement for meals, whether consumed in Des Moines or San Diego, are specific rather than applying any of the modern cost-reference systems more commonly used. After reading the requirements, one wonders why even the most highly-motivated Board member wouldn’t simply stay at home and not take the risk.
Become a model of openness
The ALD Board must stop and reverse the ever-more-tightly-inward-spiraling course of the proposed Policies, and instead develop policies that ensure that the Board becomes a model of openness, activism, accountability, and education. It is not that hard to create such policies if one begins with these core goals and develops policies meant to ensure the smooth functioning of the Board within its legal limits while also striving to reach the highest aspirations of good government.
Rene Amy is a longtime community activist living in Altadena.
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