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Library Director Threatens Lawsuit If Fired by Board

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday April 11, 2006

After two years of labor strife between employees and Library Director Jackie Griffin—and growing discontent with the director from a citizen’s group—Berkeley’s Board of Library Trustees met Saturday behind closed doors to discuss possible litigation threatened by the library director’s attorney, were she to be terminated. 

This information suggests what employees and citizens have suspected—that the Library Trustees are considering terminating the embattled director. 

A memo from the city attorney’s office, first obtained last week under California’s open meeting laws by Councilmember Kriss Worthington, revealed that Jonathan Siegel, Griffin’s attorney, had a telephone conversation with two deputy city attorneys at the end of March.  

“During that conversation Mr. Siegel threatened to file a lawsuit against the board. Mr. Siegel stated that if the board terminated Ms. Griffin, he would file a lawsuit on her behalf alleging wrongful termination,” the memo stated. 

Library Trustees came to no final conclusions at Saturday’s closed-door meeting that lasted some two hours. Because they made no decisions, the trustees are not obliged to share their deliberations with the public. 

And that leads to speculation about the status of the director. 

Among the possible outcomes is that the library director will keep her job, that as an at-will employee, she will lose it, or that she can leave her $131,494 (plus about $66,000 annually in benefits) job with a negotiated settlement.  

“I don’t believe in golden parachutes,” commented Gene Bernardi, a member of SuperBOLD, Super Berkeleyans Organizing for Library Defense—a group that first came together to protest Radio Frequency Identification, chips that, despite community objections, Griffin had imbedded in books. 

Speaking for herself, Bernardi said she thought the director should get “adequate notice and severance pay.” 

If there are settlement negotiations, they must be held behind closed doors, according to Acting City Attorney Zach Cowan. But Bernardi argued that, if such negotiations occur, they should be in the light of day 

“If it’s negotiated in public, we could avoid a golden parachute,” she said. 

Union shop steward Andrea Segall wasn’t thinking about whether the director would be fired or get a negotiated settlement. She said she was simply glad that signs seemed to point to the director’s exit and the end to antagonistic relations with employees, represented by Service Employees International Union Local 535. 

The conflicts began when the director carried through with her proposal for the more-than-$650,000 Radio Frequency Identification program, an expense that resulted in staff layoffs. 

The union has alleged that there was administrative retaliation against employees who have engaged in union activities and spoken out against library policies, exacerbating the conflict. 

“There’s been a climate of incredible fear in the library—now people are afraid to challenge (the director),” Segall said. 

“Our perspective is that we have tried over almost two years in five different venues to affect change,” Segall said. “That cost the city quite a bit of money in staff and consultant time.” 

Anes Partridge, senior field representative with SEIU 535, underscored that the union will keep the pressure on at the library until the personnel files of people disciplined unfairly have been cleared. 

A call to Griffin was returned by Community Relations Librarian Alan Bern, who said the director “can’t comment at this time on internal issues.” A message on the answering machine of her attorney, Jonathan Siegel, said he was away from the office until April 14..