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Tussle Erupts Over Library Trustee Board Appointment

By Judith Scherr
Friday April 27, 2007

The tradition of reappointing library trustees for their second and final four-year terms without considering new applicants is being challenged by a trustee. 

At the Library Board of Trustees’ April 18 meeting, Trustee Ying Lee, a former councilmember and retired congressional aide, argued against the “flawed and misleading” practice, saying the reappointment of a trustee should be seen as analogous to an elected official running for a new term in office. 

“At the end of a term, an incumbent runs and has many advantages—but runs,” Lee said, arguing against automatic reappointment, in which new applicants are not considered.  

(Not present at the April 18 meeting, the Daily Planet reviewed the library’s recording of the meeting.) 

Unlike other Berkeley boards and commissions, the five-member library board is created by the City Charter. The council representative is appointed by the City Council and sitting trustees recommend new or returning board members—there is a two-term limit—who are confirmed by the council. 

At issue immediately is the reappointment of Library Board of Trustees Chair Susan Kupfer, whose four-year term ends on May 13.  

Despite a call for applicants to be present at the April 18 meeting, the board voted 3-1 to recommend Kupfer’s reappointment. Lee voted in opposition and Kupfer recused herself. The City Council has the final word. 

Kupfer did not return a call for comment. 

In an interview Tuesday, Trustee/Councilmember Darryl Moore, who serves as the board’s City Council appointee, argued that incumbents should be given a second term unless they have performed poorly. 

“She’s worked hard as director—she deserves another term,” Moore told the Daily Planet.  

Trustee Terry Powell agreed. Speaking at the April 18 meeting, she said, “Our past practice should be respected” and adhered to until a new process is developed. 

In the past, the City Council has traditionally approved the board’s choices without discussion. After several controversial years in the library in which the board decided to implement a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag system to check out books—unpopular with some members of the staff and the public—and during which a conflict erupted between staff and the former director, ending with the director’s resignation under pressure, the City Council and library board agreed that a new system for choosing trustees should be considered.  

An “Ad Hoc Committee for ‘sunshining’ the Selection of Library Trustees” formed “to establish a more open and transparent process for selecting Library Board members,” according to the March 13 council resolution that established the body. 

The committee met for the first time April 17. It is tasked with writing procedures for a more inclusive and open selection process. Trustee members are Kupfer and Lee; councilmembers are Betty Olds and Kriss Worthington.  

At the trustees’ April 18 meeting, Lee called on fellow trustees to extend Kupfer’s term by allowing the ad hoc committee to do its job and create an orderly process for the incumbent to reapply for the office and for new applicants to apply as well. No other trustee spoke in favor of this proposal. 

Adding to the confusion around the reappointment of Kupfer was a May 13 press release authored by Alan Bern, community relations librarian, calling for applicants who wish to fill the “vacancy.” 

Bern declined to tell the Daily Planet who directed him to publish the release. Library Director Donna Corbeil was out of town and unavailable for comment. 

The release advises the community of a number of things, including the April 17 ad hoc committee meeting and the possibility that Kupfer would be asked to serve a second term at the April 18 board meeting. At almost the end of the press release, one reads: “The City of Berkeley is currently soliciting applications to fill this upcoming vacancy on the Board of Library Trustees … The deadline for submitting completed applications by e-mail to [the city clerk] is 2 p.m. on April 18, 2007.” 

The last paragraph of the release advises applicants that they must be at the trustees’ meeting to be considered for the seat. 

Applicant Helen Wheeler, who holds a master’s degree in library sciences and has served as a professional in the field, put in her bid for the seat in March through the city clerk’s office. She told the Daily Planet Tuesday that an email from the library directing her to be at the Wednesday meeting was sent on Sunday, April 15. At that point she said she concluded, because of the short notice, that the application process was not serious and she withdrew her name. 

Applicant Pat Cody, co-founder of Cody’s books, was present at the April 18 meeting. She was not called on by the board. 

“The press release was a farce,” Gene Bernardi, a member of SuperBOLD, Berkelyans Organizing for Library Defense, told the trustees at the meeting, asking how the general public would have known there was a “vacancy.” 

The question of Kupfer’s reappointment has not yet been scheduled for the City Council. The appointment process will be discussed in committee May 1, 6:30 p.m., South Berkeley Library, 1901 Russell St.