Chattanooga Library Board Responds to Audit’s Allegations

Last week the board of the Chattanooga Public Library (TN) responded to a city audit released in late August, which criticized Library Director and LJ librarian of the year Corinne Hill and top staffers for receiving excess travel reimbursements (since repaid), and stated that two employees have been reported to the state for suspected fraud for taking paid speaking and consultant jobs on library time.
chattanooga library logo 550x65 Chattanooga Library Board Responds to Audit’s Allegations Last week the board of the Chattanooga Public Library (TN) responded to a city audit released in late August, which criticized Library Director and LJ librarian of the year Corinne Hill and top staffers for receiving excess travel reimbursements (since repaid), and stated that two employees have been reported to the state for suspected fraud for taking paid speaking and consultant jobs on library time. The audit, triggered by calls from a library staffer to an anonymous hotline, cleared the library of wrongdoing in its weeding and computer equipment disposal, but called out the library’s lack of consistent policies. “The Library lacks documented policies and procedures for many key areas and the majority of operating policies in place remain antiquated,” the report found, adding that many of the policies, left over from the previous city-county organization, had never been formally adopted, and were not in line with those of the rest of the city government. James Kennedy III, chairman of the library board, told LJ, “The Chattanooga Library Board of Directors looks upon the recent City Auditor’s report as an opportunity to address some policy and procedure issues that may have been vague or outdated.” According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Kennedy also delivered a personal vote of confidence in Hill when the audit report was first issued, saying “We will get to the bottom of it and get it right without any hesitation. Corinne is right there with us. She’s world class.” For her part, Hill told LJ, “We’re not shying away from this. We own this as much as we own the accolades. This is our mess to clean up. Am I disappointed in some of my staff, yes; and am I disappointed in myself, absolutely; but that doesn’t mean we just roll over.” While admitting that disappointment, Hill stopped short of offering an apology. “I thought it was more important to accept the responsibility for the situation; to say ‘the buck stops with me and it doesn’t matter anymore who did what, we’ve got to move forward and simply fix it.’” The board took issue with some of the specifics mentioned in the audit, saying that certain reimbursements were actually in line with library policy and additional leave had been granted though not properly recorded, but it accepted the broad mandate to step up the library’s efforts on adopting new policies and seeing them applied. “It is the Board’s responsibility to resolve the outstanding issues identified in the audit report including governance, compliance, and accountability,” the board wrote. “It is imperative that we do this to keep the people of Chattanooga proud of the great work that goes on at their Public Library.”

A tighter ship on a tight timeline

To that end, the board set “an aggressive yet realistic schedule” to resolve the systemic issues by the end of 2014. Specifically, the board plans to establish governance and by-laws committees, as well as a new member board manual and training schedule for board members. Hill has specific action items as well. She will hire an external auditor; create a new employee orientation and manual; establish an annual staff training session; adopt the city of Chattanooga’s human resources policies and procedures; publish a clear set of policies relating to salary, benefits, vacation, and leave and review it with every employee; implement the city system to automate vacation and leave timekeeping; and “take appropriate disciplinary actions and job performance reviews that demonstrate the expected ethical performance by all employees.” Following the audit, system administrator Meg Backus, who was cited in the audit, resigned in early September. Assistant director Nate Hill, an LJ Mover & Shaker, was suspended pending a hearing to be held on September 15. At press time, no results of the hearing had yet been released. City auditor Stan Sewell reported Nate Hill and Backus to the state comptroller’s office, but it is unclear whether any future action will be taken from that direction. “The Comptroller’s office has broad authority to review government entities including the Chattanooga Library. It is our policy not to comment further,” John Dunn, Public Information Officer for Tennessee’s Comptroller of the Treasury, told LJ. The library board requested that Corinne Hill “consider hiring a chief administrative officer to oversee all personnel related functions and to ensure compliance with all policies and procedures.” This is something Hill had already told LJ she planned to do—“someone to come in and dot the Is and cross the Ts”—as she described the position. Hill is working with her HR department to create descriptions for the new officer and several other vacant positions. The board also cited the history of the library to explain the context in which the policy gap arose. Until 2011, the library was a joint city-county entity. When the city took over, there was no precedent in the state for the transition, so the library was still in the process of developing the library’s procedures and bringing them into compliance with the city’s when the audit occurred. “This is really just phase two of our transformation, to continue to rebuild the library system,” said Hill. “I had to make decisions when I first came in, there’s so much, what do we do first? A lot of what we worked on was our outward facing persona. If you’re not relevant in the community you can have the best business practices in the world, but if no one’s coming…? We did bring policies forward, just apparently not as quickly as folks wanted us to…. It is going to be a busy couple of months but it is not going to derail us in any way. A year from now we’ll be better because of this.” City auditor Stan Sewell seemed satisfied with the board’s response. He told LJ, “I received an extensive response from the Chattanooga Public Library’s Board. It appears the Board recognizes the deficiencies, accepts responsibility as being charged with governance, and is engaged in the process of ensuring corrective actions are taken. The City’s Audit Committee has requested our office to follow-up on the Library’s progress in implementing bylaws, policies and procedures, as well as any employee discipline, prior to their next meeting in November.” While the board’s response expressed disappointment “in not being provided more timely information by the Director on the city audit report,” Hill told LJ she hadn’t heard anything from the board that would suggest that she will be disciplined. The board response also cited the outward facing work the library has done on Hill’s watch. “As a Board, we believe the Public Library has made great strides in updating its collections, its delivery of services, and in being relevant to a diverse set of customers that are interested in reading researching and innovation. There is renewed interest in the community for the Public Library.”

Lessons in leadership

In addition to learning to prioritize the substance of internal governance differently, Hill told LJ she’s learning a lot about leading her library from this situation. “It is one thing to lead through disruptive change. What I’ve encountered in the last two weeks is leading in a crisis, and that’s…a whole different set of skills. You have to nurture your staff, keep them informed enough to keep them balanced. I am finding that really interesting and challenging in a good way,” she said. “How are we going to keep these guys okay and still in a good enough place when everything dies down that we can keep them moving forward? I don’t want them to lose faith in me and the vision.” Hill said her unusual frankness is motivated by a desire to share the benefit of this experience with the rest of the profession. “It really bothers me because more times than not, people hit a crisis and they don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “I think that’s a mistake, I don’t think that is fair to the rest of us: we don’t get a chance to learn.” This story has been updated to include a comment from Chattanooga city auditor Stan Sewell.

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