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Column: Another Narrative About Plainfield’s Library Conflict

For the Valley News
Published: 1/28/2017 9:00:03 PM
Modified: 1/31/2017 11:49:28 AM

One narrative of “Plainfield’s Library Saga” as put forward by columnist Jim Kenyon (Valley News, Jan. 15) involves a beloved librarian with 40 years of service to the town being suddenly and unceremoniously kicked to the curb by an ungrateful group of library trustees. Kenyon asserts that the trustees “could write a book on how to drive a wedge in a community while handling something as benign as overseeing a couple of small-town libraries” and referred to Nancy Norwalk as a “Plainfield icon.”

Another narrative involves a group of hard-working, dedicated library trustees fulfilling their elected duties to the best of their abilities despite some resistance on the part of an entrenched librarian who is accustomed to having things run a certain way. Being at odds with an “icon” beloved by a faction that promotes disruption can get quite ugly, and, sadly, it has.

I’ve been fascinated by town politics since moving to Plainfield in 1998 and I love my town, so I’ve spent some time looking into the facts. This being largely a personnel matter, a little digging is necessary to connect the dots that form a picture of what has been going on these last few years. Every date and every number in what follows is in the public record and most of these facts are easily found on the town’s website.

I agree with this part of Kenyon’s characterization of my town’s library system: It’s small. Plainfield has just over 2,500 residents and the annual operating budget for our libraries is around $150,000. We’re fortunate to have two libraries located some 10 miles apart, so people from the farthest corners of Plainfield don’t have to travel too far to reach a library.

Historically, the Philip Read Memorial Library in Plainfield Village and the Meriden Library were completely separate institutions with separate boards, staffs and budgets. At Plainfield’s 2009 annual Town Meeting, the town voted in favor of creating a unified library board/system by a margin of 2-1 (164 votes yes, 75 votes no). Incidentally, the town affirmed that decision at the 2015 Town Meeting when a warrant article to separate the boards was defeated by a 2-1 margin (120 votes yes, 60 votes no). It took some time for unification to become a reality, but once it did, the new board began taking a hard look at the current state of our libraries and how well they were meeting the needs of patrons.

The library board’s correspondence folder (available at the town office) certainly shows anecdotal evidence of heartfelt support for Norwalk from residents and non-residents alike. Many of the emails during 2016 came from four Norwalk supporters and some of the language directed at the board is quite vitriolic. There are also some emails in that folder expressing support for the board, including one from me.

A public board, however, should not make decisions based on anecdotal evidence. Statistics on library usage at the two facilities from 2010 through 2016 show visits and circulation at Philip Read steadily declining while visits and circulation at the Meriden Library have been steadily increasing. A 2015 survey included a question about why patrons did not visit the library more than five times a month. Ninety-four Philip Read respondents answered that question, with 62 percent identifying feeling unwelcome and 75 percent citing poor service.

Keep in mind from the time Norwalk was hired at Philip Read in 1976 up until fairly recently she was accountable only to the Philip Read board. The public record shows the new, unified board and Norwalk butted heads over various issues, including the adoption of new technology and other modernization efforts. Such conflict is rough stuff, especially in a small town with a history of underlying tensions between the “Plainfield side” and the “Meriden side” going back to at least the 1970s. Also keep in mind Norwalk has been repeatedly recognized by the library trustees, both publicly and privately, for her rich history of service to the town. I count myself among those grateful for her many contributions.

At Norwalk’s request, a public hearing was held on Jan. 17 where we learned tensions escalated to the point where in March 2015 the board suggested Norwalk consider mediation. Norwalk agreed, mediation took place over two full days, and an agreement signed on July 27, 2015 guaranteed Norwalk her employment through Dec. 31, 2016. The town’s attorney disclosed that the town agreed to Norwalk’s first choice of mediators, she was represented by legal counsel and she had additional supporters by her side throughout the mediation process. The town’s legal expenses surrounding this matter in 2015 and 2016 total about $22,000, $10,689 of which was spent on the 2015 mediation.

Norwalk’s attorney spoke at the Jan. 17 public hearing for 30 minutes. He berated the board for a variety of alleged infractions. He repeatedly threatened to sue the town unless Norwalk’s position is reinstated, with benefits, for another year. He said he was extending an olive branch when making that offer, although it struck me as anything but. He claimed to have the upper hand should the case go to court and he claimed to have the upper hand in the court of public opinion. I would challenge him on both counts.

At the library board’s regular monthly meeting on Jan. 23, the board chair opened with a personal statement. She spoke of witnessing and being subjected to bullying behavior since the day she first took the oath of office. She pleaded for civility, decency and respect and requested that we all try to be just a little kinder to each other. After a time for public comment, the trustees efficiently moved through their agenda, conducting the important work they were elected to perform. At the end of the meeting, a Plainfield resident spoke of plans to circulate a petition that will have voters at this year’s Town Meeting deliberating about our libraries yet again — this time voting whether to close the Meriden Library. And so the saga continues.

In the meantime, the filing deadline for candidates to be elected to public office in Plainfield is Feb. 3. To those of you who have served or are currently serving on Plainfield’s library board, I’m profoundly grateful for your service. I’m also very sorry for how horribly our current trustees have been treated by some members of our community. And, sadly, I caution anyone seeking candidacy for something as benign as the Plainfield Library Board of Trustees.

Karen Anikis is a resident of Plainfield.

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