MIDDLESEX - Ever since the coronavirus first crippled operations at Woburn’s historic library last spring, a roiling brouhaha raged largely out of the public eye over the management of the multi-million dollar facility.
But in recent weeks, the months-long attempt to quietly settle what started as a contract dispute has exploded into a public relations disaster for a community that just two years ago celebrated the opening of a new $31.5 million expansion project at the Pleasant Street property by the edge of Woburn Center.
In fact, since the end of January of this year, Mayor Scott Galvin has dismissed a 30-year veteran from Woburn’s Library Board of Trustees and filed legislation with the City Council to end lifetime appointments on the management body. Saying he is better suited for the supervisory role, the city’s CEO is also looking to usurp the Library Board of Trustees’ authority as the library director’s appointing authority.
Meanwhile, another veteran trustee has stepped down under protest — two other members on the nine-person body are also being replaced — all while Library Director Bonnie Roalsen and other trustees are accusing Galvin and Woburn’s City Council of using the collective bargaining strife as political cover for an all-out power grab.
And in yet the latest bombshell, which came right before The Middlesex East went to press this week, Roalsen and Assistant Library Director Rebecca Meehan reportedly tendered their resignations on Tuesday just hours before the City Council was set to debate the proposed library reform package.
Rooted in COVID-19 crisis
The genesis of the library fight dates back to the initial months of the COVID-19 crisis, when Roalsen, two years into her tenure at the helm of the historic H.H. Richardson building, proposed layoffs in response to the state’s mandated March 23 shutdown of “non-essential” businesses.
Library workers, pointing out that no other city department was considering staffing cuts in response to the emergency directives of Mass. Governor Charles Baker, resisted. Ultimately, the library opened on a limited basis this August.
Last summer, while meeting with the City Council to discuss his proposed budget for FY’21, Galvin told the city’s aldermen that “all options were on the table” at the library, including layoffs. However, what the city CEO didn’t mention was that he technically had little say over such personnel decisions — as Roalsen reported directly to the Library Board of Trustees.
However in the ensuing months, as groups like the Friends of the Woburn Public Library also found themselves butting heads with Roalsen, the public on various occasions turned to Galvin and the City Council, begging them to intervene.
At least twice, a handful of local aldermen expressed their desire to investigate the contract strife. However, after City Solicitor Ellen Callahan Doucette reminded the council that they would technically be interfering with collective bargaining talks by doing so, the council reluctantly agreed to stay silent.
Likewise, at least when it comes to commenting publicly on the library tensions, Galvin respected the authority of Woburn’s Library Board of Trustees by keeping private his own opinions on the matter. In fact, at one point, when the state’s Library Commission tried to intervene, the mayor defended Woburn’s right to set its own budget priorities.
Various Library Trustees, such as Janet Rabbitt and then Vice Chair Carol Seitz, also rushed to Roalsen’s defense as the conflict with library advocates and staffers deepened.
“Sadly, there appears to be a coordinated campaign of misinformation about current library operations, which face unprecedented challenges at a time of a global, deadly pandemic. I am glad to have the opportunity to address the issues about which I have direct knowledge,” Seitz wrote the City Council in a July of 2020 letter. “When taxpayers are hurting, they have a right to demand city-funded departments and programs adjust. That is a reality that surely every hard-working Woburn resident understands. Staffing will need to be adjusted and yes, downsized. Woburn is not immune to this reality.”
A boiling point
With the City Council relegated to the sidelines, members of the public by last fall became tired of being left in the dark about the happenings at the Woburn Center area facility.
What followed was a flurry of letters, public records requests, and Open Meeting Law complaints filed by everyday citizens trying to obtain more information about the Library Board of Trustees’ actions.
At least two trustees, including longtime member Richard Mahoney, supported those efforts and insisted some of that information should be made public. However, Rabbit and others on the board instead agreed to contest those requests.
Late last month, after reportedly hearing rumors that Library Board of Trustees’ President Janet Rabbitt all but bragged about intentionally keeping fellow trustees like Mahoney and Joanne McNamee away from official meetings to discuss the hiring of an attorney and a public relations firm to defend against those Open Meeting Law and Public Records Law complaints, Galvin sprang into action.
In a Jan. 27 decision that is now being contested by Rabbitt, the mayor, who had watched recordings of the board’s virtual gathering on Jan. 19, announced that he was ousting the trustee president from her lifetime appointment effective immediately.
"When Trustee Mahoney asked why he was not notified of the October 2, 2020 meeting, you responded, 'Richard you would have voted against it [hiring the public relations firm] so what was the sense,'" Galvin alleged.
“I am keenly aware of the ongoing differences of opinion between and among the trustees with respect to community sentiment towards the current library director. Such differences of opinion are to be expected. However, it is unconscionable and unacceptable for you to deliberately leave certain trustees out of the decision making process because they might not agree with your position," the mayor continued.
After removing Rabbitt from her trustee post, a position the local resident had held for three decades, the mayor appeared before the City Council with a proposal to ask the state Legislature to pass a special act that will end lifetime appointments on Woburn’s library board. He is also looking to strip from the trustees their authority to hire and dismiss future library directors.
“We're spending a significant amount of [taxpayer dollars on the library] and sometimes it's frustrating, because the general public expects the mayor to take certain actions. You get into a situation where the trustees can do what they want regardless of what the mayor says,” the city executive told the council.
Stranded on the sidelines for months, Woburn’s aldermen also let loose earlier in the month on the trustees after a majority of the public officials made clear they support the Home Rule Petition to the state legislature.
Later during the debate, various aldermen warned the trustees that come budget time, every single library program and operating expense will be under a microscope.
“This has been a very frustrating situation for the entire city - for the kids, for the parents, for everybody,” said Ward 5 Alderman Darlene Mercer-Bruen. “Comes this May, we’ll be having budget hearings, and I just want to make it clear to anybody who’s listening that come budget time, you better be prepared. We’ll be reviewing every single penny that’s been spent…That’s a promise.”