For some, concerns rise following staff departures at Garfield County Library District
Executive Director Brett Lear faces scrutiny but says libraries moving in positive direction
Note: This article has been revised from the original web-posted version to reflect that there were two separate Garfield County Library District ballot questions related to funding in 2018 and 2019.
A spate of recent resignations among branch managers and support staff within the Garfield County Public Library District has fingers pointed in lots of directions, including at the executive director.
Functionally, it also has the district scrambling to fill several key positions as it works to rebound from pandemic restrictions and make good on promises contained in the voter-approved 2019 mill levy increase.
Some staffers who resigned in recent months said they were prompted to go on record with concerns about internal library relations, namely with Executive Director Brett Lear, that they fear will ultimately impact library services.
“We really just began to see a lack of foresight and an inability to take suggestions from anyone else. That became especially true when the pandemic hit,” said Laurin Arnold, who left in March after four years as the Glenwood Springs Branch manager.
Lacy Hilterbrand, who left her position as Carbondale Branch manager in mid-April after nearly three years with the district, expressed similar concerns.
“There was no focus, no vision at all. And when we were given direction from Brett, it would change,” she said. “So many things were supposed to start even before the pandemic that just never happened.”
She and others who have left the district who didn’t want to be named also described a “toxic” work environment.
“The working environment in the past year and a half has deteriorated to a place of distress and unhappiness,” one former branch manager said in an exit statement to Human Resources, which she provided to the Post Independent.
“Many attempts to improve the situation were ignored and mocked as insignificant by executive management,” she said. “I have been marginalized to such a degree that I had to seek positive employment elsewhere.”
Lear described the situation as a result of the pains of growing and adapting as the libraries work to expand services and staffing. He said efforts are being made to improve staff communication and transparency, move projects forward and address pay concerns.
Also playing into it, though, is a challenging labor and housing market that’s affecting lots of sectors, including libraries, he said.
Four of the six branch managers have resigned since February, including one within the past month at the Rifle Branch.
In addition, Lear said Tuesday that two new managers recently hired to take on branch positions either couldn’t follow through or left shortly after arriving for different reasons.
A review of recent Library District board minutes reveals more than 20 staff resignations since the beginning of the year.
Lear said the district employs 87 people, including several part-time staff. Many of those positions were added with the extra funding provided by separate voter-approved library ballot measures in 2018 and 2019.
”We had all of the branch manager positions filled at one point, so it is frustrating,” Lear said. “The sooner we can fill these, the better.”
Lear did note that the district was able to hire 22 new frontline library workers in 2020 — part of the promise to voters in the November 2019 mill levy question to increase staffing and ultimately restore library hours that had been cut in recent years due to funding shortfalls.
“We do have the capacity to expand hours, we just haven’t done so because of COVID,” Lear said, adding that may happen by September.
“I’m proud of a lot of the things that we were able to do, pivoting some of our programs like children’s storytime to online,” he said. “We were also able to use the time to greatly expand our book collection and other materials.”
Lear said he has requested an executive session with the appointed Library Board at its next meeting on Aug. 5 at the Parachute Branch to discuss turnover and personnel matters.
LGBTQ+ respect questioned
One short-term library staff member, former volunteer coordinator Beau Ruechel, also went public after their recent resignation with concerns about the district disallowing staff members’ pronouns in email signatures.
Ruechel is transgender and, upon being hired in Februrary, had asked people use they/them, which Ruechel also said Lear refused to use when addressing them.
“I’ve spoken with the board about this, and the response is absolute silence, other than ‘thank you,’” Ruechel said.
In Ruechel’s own lengthy resignation in March, which was posted to the Library District’s Facebook page during Pride Month in June, they wrote: “I am resigning because as a trans person, it is not safe for me to work at the library.
“This feels crazy to say — I have always viewed libraries as a safe haven. A place where, when I walked through those doors, my heart lit up and my imagination began to soar. So I’m shocked to be writing these words: It is not safe for me to work at the Garfield County Libraries.”
Other staff members have reportedly also since left over similar concerns, including a directive not to include pronouns such as they/them, he/him, she/her on staff email signatures.
Ruechel said it’s common practice anymore with many institutions, including libraries, colleges and nonprofit organizations, to include pronouns with internal and external communications.
Lear declined to comment directly regarding the LGBTQ+ rights issues that have been raised, other than to say HR continues to look into it.
Working from within
Getting back to the broader communication issues, Arnold said the situation she left in March was unsustainable and continues to be so based on what she’s heard from others who have since decided to leave the district.
She said they initially approached the communication issue wondering what they could do differently to get their points across more effectively.
A group of managers prepared a statement of concern to present to then-HR Director Kim Owens, who also has since left the district.
“We had a desire to try to change things from within, and had reached out to some consultants in the library industry to get some ideas,” Arnold said.
Lear, who had joined the district in late 2018, ultimately agreed to a process that involved bringing in a facilitator last fall to address staff communication skills. But even when Arnold and others tried to employ some of those techniques, things didn’t change, she said.
“It just became even more antagonistic against us,” she said.
Hilterbrand said she had the same experience.
“I saw how it started to affect people who I loved working with, and I knew I was going to have to end up leaving because of it,” she said.
Lear said one attempt to try to improve communications, and provide a layer of separation between him and the branch managers, is the hiring of a new position called a “neighborhood libraries manager,” which is now being advertised along with the other vacant positions.
Such go-between is common in library systems, Lear said, delegating some of the direct supervision of branches to a sub-level administrator.
That responsibility was part of the existing assistant director’s job, but that position gets spread thin with other duties, Lear said.
“The sole purpose of the neighborhood libraries manager would be to supervise and support the branch managers,” Lear said, adding his job as executive director is more specific to policy matters, community and board relations and district finances.
Hilterbrand questioned that approach, saying it’s money spent on another management position when the extra funds approved by voters were intended more for frontline, branch-level positions.
Lear said the district is about seven months into a nine-month wage and market study that will compare Garfield County Library District employee wages to similar positions on the Western Slope.
“It’s also intended to revise all of the job descriptions to make sure they reflect the work that’s actually being done,” he said.
That and other matters related to hiring and retaining personnel in the district will be the subject of discussion at upcoming board meetings.
Board President Adrian Rippy-Sheehy said Tuesday it is the board’s policy not to comment individually on personnel matters. She, too, pointed to the upcoming Aug. 5 executive session as being meant to address some of the concerns expressed.
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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