By Alex Robinson
With less than two weeks left in the legislative session, lawmakers have been working to get through an impasse on dueling Queens Library reform bills.
Following allegations of fiscal mismanagement at Queens Library and revelations the nonprofit’s chief executive officer, Thomas Galante, makes a $392,000 salary, Borough President Melinda Katz sat down with state Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry (D-Elmhurst) to draft a bill to make the nonprofit more transparent.
They then reached out to state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) to sponsor a sister bill in the Senate.
At the same time, Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), who joined the Independent Democratic Conference in February, said he was working on his own bill, which he introduced several weeks after Gianaris introduced his.
While both senators were drawing up their bills, Gianaris’ office contacted Avella’s counsel asking for support on the legislation, but the IDC senator turned them down because he said their bill did not go far enough.
“It’s one step above feel-good legislation,” Avella said in an interview. “It’s nice. It makes you feel good, but it really doesn’t go far enough. So I introduced my bill, which is much more substantial.”
Both bills would reform the library’s board of trustees, imposing new term limits and rules for removing board members. The board recently came under fire for voting down a motion that would open the nonprofit’s books to an audit by city Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office. The board also met heavy criticism when it failed to oust Galante in a 9-9 vote in April.
Both pieces of legislation would also include limitations on outside work Queens Library executives could do, create conflict of interest rules and require executive personnel to submit financial disclosures.
Aubry has also made amendments to include two parts of Avella’s bill, which would make Queens Library subject to Freedom of Information Laws and would require the nonprofit to hold annual budget hearings.
For Avella, the amendments Aubry made still did not go far enough, as the IDC senator wants all three of the city’s library systems to be subject to Freedom of Information laws and city Conflict of Interest rules.
“We think it’s easier to pass our bill because our bill impacts only the Queens public library system,” Aubry said. “Tony’s bill impacts all of the library systems, so he would need to get delegations from all the boroughs affected to agree to his bill.”
Avella’s legislation would also reduce the number of board members to 11 at the Queens Library and would require all new board members to be named as of Jan. 1 of next year. It would also require a public accountant, a community board district leader, a community board chairman and two librarians to sit on the board of trustees.
Avella, now part of the governing coalition between the IDC and Republicans, has said Gianaris’ bill does not have a chance of moving through the Senate as is.
“Let’s deal in political reality,” he said. “Gianaris is in the minority, he’s not passing his bill. That’s the reality of the situation.”
Meanwhile, Avella’s bill does not have a sponsor in the Assembly, meaning it would not be able to pass that chamber.
A spokeswoman for state Sen. Jeffrey Klein (D-Bronx), who heads the IDC, declined to say whether he would bring Gianaris’ bill to the floor for a vote, but issued a statement in support of Avella’s version.
”Sen. Klein believes that Sen. Avella has the most comprehensive and far-reaching bill in the Senate, which will ensure greater accountability of taxpayers’ money and prevent widespread financial abuse,” she said in the statement.
Gianaris and Aubry’s version of the bill received support from six of the borough’s seven senators and all of Queens’ Democratic City Council members.
“I hope his petty politics do not interfere with the merits of reforming a library system that is in desperate need of reform,” Gianaris said of Avella. “I hope his position isn’t that a good bill should be blocked just because a Democrat is carrying it. That would be outrageous.”
Despite friction over their bills, Avella and his Democratic counterparts all agree that reforms need to be passed immediately.
“We know we have a problem and there is no reason to wait until next year to fix it,” Gianaris said.
Katz expressed the urgent need to reform the Queens Library in an interview and said it was up to the state lawmakers to get a bill passed to achieve that goal.
“I hope the senators can make this work, but its not for me to sit down with them,” she said. “It’s for the senator’s the figure it out themselves.”
Avella said a third party, whom he declined to identify, is working toward a compromise.
“We’re closer now than we have been and we only have two weeks left,” Avella said.
Reach reporter Alex Robinson by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.