Public Comment

Commentary: Conflict of Interest, Cronyism, Secrecy and Profit Motive

By Peter Warfield and Gene Bernardi
Friday December 08, 2006

A triple dose of conflict of interest, secrecy, and outsourcing of most of the library director selection process to a private search firm, Dubberly Garcia Associates (DGA), and to an advisory committee of outside library directors, raises very serious questions. 

Whose interests are served when (1) most of the process is covered by a blanket of secrecy; (2) the responsibility for selecting four final candidates from the 13 reportedly provided by DGA, is turned over to an advisory committee of head librarians from other jurisdictions; (3) apparent conflicts of interest, suggesting cronyism, taint the whole process; and (4) profit drives the search firm and could potentially result in an expedient placement, rather than one that is best for Berkeley? 

These concerns would not exist if the Board of Library Trustees (BOLT) were to start over, managing the process itself with the help of the city’s workers and involving, throughout the process, the library’s unions, staff, and the public. 

Here are major concerns: 


Secrecy and pseudo-public process 

The process, and by whom carried out, for eliminating nine of the reported 13 candidates to the selected final four was withheld for too long from our inquiries and public knowledge. The names and written statements of the final four candidates were only released on Nov. 15, just a day before the interview panels began and three days before the poorly publicized public candidates’ forum on Nov. 18. 


Whose questions? 

BOLT planned for three interview panels to meet and interview the four finalists. But at least one panel was conducted by the search firm, and panel members were given pre-selected questions to ask, whose source we do not know. BOLT never clearly indicated how it would weigh the panels’ input, and delayed revealing names of staff and community panel members until well after the interviews took place, only after being repeatedly pressed by our questions at the library’s administrative office and by the public at the Nov. 29 special meeting. 


Finalist selection process unclear  

Who interviewed the 13 reported candidates and selected the four finalists? We understand that three members of the advisory committee of library heads interviewed them, but neither the library administration nor BOLT chair Susan Kupfer would confirm who made the selection. In addition we have received different stories as to who conducted the interviews. 

The minutes of BOLT’s Aug. 16 meeting list what is described as “the seven members of the advisory committee, besides Trustees Anderson and Kupfer.” They are: Anne Cain, county librarian, Contra Costa County Library; Linda Crowe, system director, Bay Area Library and Information System; Susan Hardie, retired (previously director of Alameda City Library); Carol Starr, director of library services, Marin County Free Library; Luis Herrera, city librarian, San Francisco Public Library; Susan Hildreth, California state librarian; and Carmen Martinez, library director, Oakland Public Library. 

A printed list from the library shows just three librarians—Hildreth, Cain and Starr—as being on the “Library Director Selection Panel”–“Advisory Committee.” Chair Susan Kupfer said at the Nov. 29 special BOLT meeting that there were three, but then gave four quite different names: Hildreth, Starr, Herrera, and Martinez . 


Conflicts of interest 

Two of the four final candidates are now working, or have worked, under members of the advisory committee of library directors chosen by BOLT to help with the selection of a new Berkeley Public Library (BPL) director. Donna Corbeil, deputy director at Solano County Library since August, 2004, worked under Susan Hildreth as Chief of Branches for five years when Hildreth headed the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) until mid-2004. Gerry Garzon, deputy director of Oakland Public Library, currently works under Carmen Martinez, who heads that system. 

We think Hildreth and Martinez , at a minimum, should have recused themselves from serving on the interview panel, and the library’s printed list suggests that Martinez may have done so. But even if both recused themselves, how free would other library heads feel about potentially rejecting a candidate so close to a fellow committee member, especially a former subordinate of the State Librarian? 


The hidden pro-RFID bias... 

Susan Hildreth has publicly advocated for radio frequency identification (RFID) technology for libraries since 2003. Gov. Schwarzenegger, who appointed her California state librarian in mid-2004, recently vetoed California state Sen. Simitian’s bill that would have restricted, because of the privacy threats, the use of RFID in certain government-issued documents, including library cards. The Simitian bill was supported by the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and many others. 

We noted in our Nov. 17 Commentary that BOLT’s seven-member librarian advisory committee includes four librarians who have advocated RFID or been associated with libraries that installed it. Could this have resulted in biasing the candidate selection process, affecting who was included—or excluded during the process? 


Search firm profit — potential conflict 

A search firm, of course, would like to make a successful placement, but for profit’s sake cannot spend too much effort. Berkeley’s contract with DGA provides a “guarantee” of another search for no fee if the new director should leave the position or be terminated “for cause” within the first year after appointment. 

Seeking profit results in another potential conflict regarding turnover. Any job change means an opportunity to fill the position just vacated. Rapid turnover, within reason, is good business for search firms, but not good for communities that want long-serving directors. 


Some bright spots 

The conflicts of interest we describe are inherent in the situation that was set up. The structure—interview panels and a public candidates’ forum—were good. Our concern is with the process as a whole and with good aspects that were vitiated by poor execution. In part, this may come from a split on BOLT. We appreciate, in particular, Trustee Ying Lee’s public service, her efforts to make herself accessible to all, and her advocacy for broad inclusion and participation. 



We believe the trustees should sweep away the clouds of conflicted purposes and do what is best for Berkeley: start again and do this important job themselves, with help from the public, the library unions, and other city employees. 

Or how about hiring from within? Couldn’t Berkeley tap an excellent current or former employee for this job? Why not? 


Peter Warfield is executive director of the Library Users Association. Gene Bernardi and Warfield are members of Berkeleyans Organizing for Library Defense (SuperBOLD).