Ex- Trustees Go to Court

Sue Katz For Library Board Removal

Six ousted members of Queens Borough Public Library’s board of trustees are asking a federal court to restore them to their duties, claiming their removal was unconstitutional.

Counsel representing Jacqueline Arrington, Joseph Ficalora, William Jefferson, Grace Lawrence, Terri Mangino and George Stamatiades filed a lawsuit last Friday, Aug. 1, in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn against Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and the State of New York.

Katz removed the six members last month under authority granted in state legislation passed in June aimed at reforming Queens Library, which has come under scrutiny over its finances in recent months. The de Blasio administration removed two other trustees.

Both the borough president and mayor share in the responsibility of appointing Queens Library’s trustees. Former Borough President Helen Marshall previously appointed the six trustees Katz removed.

The six trustees Katz removed formally appealed to the borough president for reconsideration, and Katz dismissed their appeals.

The trustees are seeking a temporary restraining order blocking their immediate removal; a hearing on the application is scheduled for Monday, Aug. 11, at the federal court in Brooklyn.

Just before the Times Newsweekly went to press late Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 6, Katz issued a statement charging that “the former trustees are making a federal case out of something that is very simple.”

“Their removals were clearly authorized by the state law that was enacted in June with nearly unanimous support in the legislature,” Katz stated. “They are therefore forced to rely on the extraordinarily weak argument that their removal was somehow unconstitutional. You can’t make a federal case out of disappointment.”

Katz claimed the removal was her “last resort” after the six members balked at efforts to reform the library, including supporting its embattled president and CEO and refusing to offer full financial disclosure to one of several investigating entities looking into the system’s finances.

‘A brazen power grab’

The lawsuit, however, charged the six removals Katz made amounted to “a brazen and unconstitutional power grab … to transform the Queens Borough Public Library from an independent, private, nonprofit corporation into an organ of city government controlled by the Queens borough president and mayor.”

“The trustees remain on the board and they can be removed only according to the library’s by-laws, not by an unconstitutional statute or the whims of local politicians,” said Douglas E. Grover, attorney for the firm Schlam Stone & Dolan LLP, who is representing the ousted trustees.

“After dismissing the trustees, it’s hardly surprising that the borough president rejected their appeal,” Grover added in a statement to this paper Wednesday morning, Aug. 6. “It’s one more reason the court must step in and halt the damage Ms. Katz has already done to the library and the further damage that would surely follow.”

As noted in the 96-page lawsuit, the state established Queens Library “as an independent, self-governing private corporation” through legislation passed in 1907. Queens Library was developed largely through philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who built the first public libraries in the borough. In an deal with Carnegie, the city agreed to fund the library’s operations thereafter.

A system under fire

Earlier this year, Queens Library came under fire after reports surfaced that its president and CEO, Thomas W. Galante, earned a nearly $400,000 annual salary and authorized a sixfigure renovation of his Jamaica office. The library defended his pay as comparable to salaries earned by other nonprofit leaders.

The report angered many since Queens Library cut services and staff in recent years as a result of reduced government funding. Questions also surfaced regarding Queens Library’s selection of private contractors to perform certain services such as maintenance.

The FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, City Comptroller Scott Stringer and the city Department of Investigation each launched inquiries into Queens Library’s finances; the investigations remain ongoing.

Bristled with pols

In the wake of the turmoil, the lawsuit charged, Katz “set her sights on taking control” of Queens Library and dictated to trustees “how she ‘expected’ them to vote on matters of management and administration.” After voting contrary to Katz’s wishes, it is alleged, the borough president “accused them-in a highly public smear campaign-of violating their duties and misusing taxpayer funds.”

In June, the state legislature passed-and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed-legislation amending the Library’s 1907 Act of Incorporation giving the borough president and mayor the authority to remove trustees. As previously reported, State Sen. Michael Gianaris and Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry-with Katz’s assistance-drafted and sponsored the bill.

The lawsuit charges that the new rule “converts a private corporation of charitable origin into an organ of city government subject to the will of whichever politicians may be in office.”

The six trustees Katz removed received their notice on July 23. The borough president purportedly claimed they were being cut since they did not vote in accordance with her wishes at board votes in April regarding Galante’s future at Queens Library and in May over financial disclosure obligations.

Prior to the April vote, Katz wrote to Board of Trustees Chair Gabriel Taussig indicating Galante’s continued service puts the library’s financial future in jeopardy, noting that “as an elected official charged with allocating taxpayer dollars, I must ensure they are appropriated wisely-and I cannot do that while the library’s sitting president faces a federal investigation.”

As reported, the Queens Library trustees deadlocked 9-9 in May on a resolution forcing Galante into a leave of absence. Five of the six members Katz ousted voted against the resolution; Arrington was out of the room during the vote and, thus, did not cast a ballot.

All six members then voted ‘yes’ on a resolution at the May board meeting agreeing to provide Stringer with financial information in accordance with Queens Library’s 1997 compact with then-City Comptroller Alan Hevesi.

Stringer is seeking a court injunction invalidating the agreement and compelling Queens Library to fully disclose its finances.

The lawsuit alleges Katz removal of the six trustees constitutes an “unconstitutional retaliation under the First Amendment.” They are seeking federal judgment declaring the new law unconstitutional, reinstating the trustees to their positions and providing them with monetary damages.

Looking out for the library

In her statement last Wednesday, Katz charged she was, in dismissing the six trustees, acting in the best interests of the borough and the millions of Queens Library’s customers.

“My only goals are to make sure the management of the Queens Library, one of our borough’s most treasured institutions, is placed back on a proper path of transparency and good governance,” she said, “and that the library fully cooperates with all relevant investigations.”

Katz believes the court “will agree that there has been no harm done to these six individuals and that their potential return to the board would be completely disruptive, because they would continue to block attempts by city agencies, investigative entities and their fellow trustees to get full access to important information about how public tax dollars are being spent by the library, which gets 85 percent of its funding from the City of New York.”