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A Real Page Turner

Scandal overshadows the unveiling of the Pueblo Library



On a hill in Pueblo's Mesa Junction neighborhood, on the south bank of the Arkansas River and overlooking the city's downtown, an impressive structure is rising that will soon be the envy of southern Colorado.

"A sculptural abstraction of, and a careful response to, Pueblo's natural and cultural landscape," is how New Mexico architect Antoine Predock describes his design of Pueblo's new, $21-million public library -- a 108,000-square-foot edifice clad in patinated copper and Southwestern stucco, with a courtyard, a reflecting pool, a lighted glass elevator tower, and balconies from which you can see, on a clear day, Pikes Peak to the north and the Spanish Peaks to the south.

It should be a joyous time for the Pueblo City-County Library District.

But the months leading up to the grand opening of the new building have been, without comparison, the worst in the library district's history. A corruption scandal has tainted the fund-raising effort for the new facility, sparking bitter internal feuding and leading to an investigation by the local district attorney that concluded crimes had likely been committed.

The entire seven-member volunteer library board -- responsible for a $6-million annual operating budget, and for hiring the district's executive director that oversees its four branch locations and the main library -- was booted. And the library was left without an executive director.

"This library basically has been brought to its knees," said Janet Cox, a librarian now serving as one of three interim directors for the district. "We are trying to pick up the pieces."

Although a new library board is now trying to move beyond the scandal, wounds have yet to heal. The conflict has left behind a divided library staff and a distrustful community. Claims of harassment and retaliation over what happened still plague the library district, and lawsuits are being threatened.

"I've never seen an organization implode from within like this," said Kirk Brown, an attorney representing three library employees who are planning to sue the district.

Chain of events

Running beneath a section of the new library is a narrow alley, Bates Lane. It is named after the late Chuck Bates, who served as the library's director for 21 years. Though the roots of the library's troubles date back several years, it was Bates' death from cancer last October that seemed to trigger the chain of events leading to the recent upheaval at the library.

When Bates became ill last summer, he named Richard Lee as interim library director. Lee had joined the library district as director of public services in 1999. After Bates died, the library board made Lee the district's permanent director.

But Lee and the board would soon be at each other's throats, as Lee began to raise questions about financial dealings involving the library board's president, Glenn Ballantyne, and Ballantyne's wife, Marcie Gutman.

Since at least 1997, the library district had paid a public-relations agency run by Ballantyne an estimated $188,000 for helping raise money for the new library.

While most public officials would consider such an arrangement a clear conflict of interest, the library board had openly voted to contract with Ballantyne after consulting with the library district's attorneys, who told the board that it was technically legal. And Ballantyne had left the boardroom each time the board discussed or voted on his contract.

Meanwhile, Ballantyne's wife, Gutman, had been paid about $15,000 to give weekly yoga lessons for library staff over a three-year period.

Lee says that upon becoming director, he began to feel troubled by these arrangements and started to express his misgivings. From that point on, he claims, Ballantyne had it in for him.

"I guess he saw the crosshairs on his cash cow, and that was it," Lee recalled of Ballantyne's reaction.

Lee also canceled Gutman's yoga classes, which reportedly drew few participants. "I think that was what really made Glenn angry, and then I think he was out to get [Lee] for it," said Doris Kester, a library board member at the time.

In early April, the library board's members -- with the exception of Kester -- suddenly voted to fire Lee, without providing Lee or the public any explanation. All that the board members have said since is that they had "lost confidence" in Lee.

Lee says the explanation makes no sense. "In the months preceding that, I was given two promotions and a couple of raises -- substantial raises," he recalled. "So how do you lose confidence all of a sudden?"

The board replaced Lee with Barclay Jameson, a retired managing editor of the Pueblo Chieftain newspaper, as interim director. Jameson had no library management experience, but he was a friend of Ballantyne's, and the Chieftain's editor and publisher, Bob Rawlings, had pledged a $4 million donation for the new library building -- 57 percent of all private money donated. The library will be named in Rawlings' honor.

In closed session

According to Kester, there was plenty that was fishy about Ballantyne's actions as board president. She says she had been questioning the board's contract with Ballantyne long before the public controversy erupted.

"We went to the attorneys, we went to the auditor, we raised questions, and we were informed that everything was according to the law," Kester recalled. "I knew that what was going on might have been legal, but I didn't think it was ethical. And that's why I questioned it."

In April, when the board first voted to fire Lee in closed session, Kester cast the sole dissenting vote. But the next day, a newspaper article stated the decision had been unanimous.

Kester called the newspaper and asked for a correction. Another library board meeting was hastily called to confirm the now-disputed vote in open session. But Kester says Ballantyne never notified her of the second meeting, and that she only found out about it by accident, enabling her to attend.

This time, Ballantyne asked only for "aye" votes, failing to ask for "nay" votes until Kester insisted that he do so, she says. Again, she voted not to fire Lee.

"I didn't see any reason to fire him," Kester said. "He had done a good job."

A great deal of money

Neither Ballantyne nor Gutman responded to numerous requests for comment for this story. Besides Kester, the only member of the former library board who would speak to the Independent is Peggy Fogel.

Fogel says that while the library district's contract with Ballantyne was already in place before she joined the board, she had been reassured it was perfectly appropriate.

"The board approved that," she said. "They had asked the library's attorney, who said it was legal. ... It wasn't hidden."

She also notes that Ballantyne raised $7 million in private donations for the library project, which comes on top of $14 million in taxpayer funding. "He raised a great deal of money, more than most people had ever raised in the community."

As for Lee's firing, she says she can't comment, due to the possibility that Lee might sue the library district.

"We can't go into that, still," Fogel said.

But Lee says he pledged not to sue the library when, three months later, he reached a deal with a newly reconstituted library board to return for a brief stint as interim director. Since he has surrendered his right to sue, there's no longer any reason why former board members can't explain why they fired him, he says.

"If they're free to say it, then let's hear it," Lee said.

Firing sparks outrage

Lee's firing sparked outrage among the district's librarians, most of whom had thought highly of their mild-mannered boss, who always took time to mingle and chat with his subordinates.

"He treated people really well," said Cox, one of the current interim directors. "Anyone could come in and speak to him."

With help from library patrons, the librarians launched a vigorous campaign to try to bring Lee back. They signed petitions asking for his reinstatement, contacted the media and spoke at meetings of the library boar and of the elected officials who appoint them, the Pueblo City Council and Board of County Commissioners.

As the campaign began attracting the media's attention, reporters soon learned not only about Ballantyne's direct fund-raising work for the library district, but also about another highly questionable business deal from which he had profited even more.

In a period ranging from at least 1997 to 2001, Fort Collins resident Robert Baulesh had also been paid to conduct public-relations work for the library. But in reality, most of that money -- an estimated $280,000 -- had ended up in Ballantyne's pockets as well. Baulesh, who apparently had no previous fund-raising experience, had simply hired his longtime friend Ballantyne to do most of the work for him.

Within weeks, the revelations stirred sufficient outrage that the Pueblo City Council and the Board of County Commissioners both asked District Attorney Gus Sandstrom to launch an investigation. Ballantyne announced he would cut his business ties to the library district, and by the end of April, he resigned from the library board.

The following month, the City Council and the Board of County Commissioners met in joint session and asked the entire library board to resign, citing a widespread loss of confidence in its leadership. A new library board made up entirely of new members was appointed in June.

One of the new board's first actions was to cancel its contract with Jameson, the interim director. It was too late to rehire Lee, who by then had accepted a new job as director of the Waukegan Public Library in Illinois. However, Lee, who was still in Pueblo, signed a deal with the board to return as interim director for just four weeks.

Meanwhile, District Attorney Sandstrom issued a report on his investigation of the library board's financial relationship with Ballantyne. Sandstrom concluded that the arrangement with Baulesh, which profited Ballantyne, likely violated conflict-of-interest laws. However, Sandstrom said he could not file criminal charges because the statute of limitations had expired since the last potentially illegal payment was made.

Ballantyne's direct fund-raising work, meanwhile, was carried out legally with full and open approval by the board, Sandstrom determined. "It does not appear that this contract was in violation of the criminal law," Sandstrom stated in the report.

Sandstrom did not respond to numerous requests for comment for this story.

'We're not afraid anymore'

While largely successful, the library employees' campaign had been rough going. Librarians who backed Lee say they lived in fear of losing their jobs for speaking up against the board.

Now, they say, they can breathe a sigh of relief.

"We're not afraid anymore," said JoAnna McKinney, a librarian.

But not everybody is happy. A handful of employees, most of them in supervisory positions, refused to join their co-workers' effort to bring back Lee. Some were clearly loyal to Ballantyne; others say they simply tried to stay out of the fray.

Now that the tables have been turned, those who didn't jump on the pro-Lee bandwagon claim they are being harassed and shut out by fellow employees.

Brown, the attorney who is representing three employees claiming harassment, points to Helen Tomicich, the library's former human-resources director, as evidence that his clients' fears are founded. Having feuded with Lee, Tomicich was fired in July after the new pro-Lee library board came into power.

To make matters more complex and personal, Tomicich is Brown's ex-wife, but not currently his client. She had worked under a contract with the library since 1998, when then-director Bates brought Tomicich in as a labor consultant in response to a unionization attempt by library employees.

In the weeks leading up to Tomicich's firing, KOAA Channels 5/30 aired news reports suggesting she had lied to the library district about her academic credentials. Tomicich claimed to have a doctorate degree, but when challenged publicly to provide proof of it, she refused. KOAA also reported that Tomicich had written and distributed derogatory notes about co-workers.

Tomicich did not respond to a request for comment through Brown. And the new library board won't officially say why they fired her.

"She had a contract; the board chose to cancel it, is all," said Anthony Nuez, the new board president.

Fellow board member Gil Trujillo, however, says questions about Tomicich's credentials were not a main factor for him. Trujillo says he simply didn't feel Tomicich's contract, at approximately $70,000 per year, was worth the expense.

"I work for a company that has 600 employees, and we don't have a human-resources director," said Trujillo, who works for the U.S. Postal Service in Pueblo. "The library has 99 employees."

Tomicich never did prove to library board members that she had a Ph.D., Trujillo says. "That's a concern, but that wasn't why we released her. That wasn't my reasoning for doing it. I just don't think [her] position is needed."

Brown, on the other hand, claims the firing was retaliation for Tomicich's refusal to back Lee. He maintains Tomicich does have a Ph.D. in organizational behavior from the Institute for Experiential Universities, though the Independent could find no record of any such institution.

"I cannot find the Web site [of the institution] any longer, either," Brown conceded. "I don't know if they went out of business."

Regardless, Brown says, Tomicich's contract and job description didn't require her to have a Ph.D. -- a fact library officials confirmed.

Brown further claims Tomicich, who is Hispanic, was unpopular with the mostly Anglo library staff in part because she aggressively sought to interview minority applicants for job openings.

Jobs threatened

The treatment of Tomicich, Brown says, motivated three other library managers to hire him to help protect them against similar fates: Heinz Bergann, supervisor of circulation; Gary Martino, the library's superintendent of facilities; and Ben Taylor, director of information technology -- all of whom refused to join the pro-Lee campaign.

Brown says his three clients complain that co-workers are now hostile and uncooperative toward them. And during Lee's four-week comeback as interim director, Lee made threats suggesting their jobs were in danger, Brown maintains.

The three say they can't speak to the media except through Brown, because a directive issued by Lee on July 11 has effectively gagged them.

"To avoid potential litigation against the library, when you receive any requests for information particularly from legal counsel or outside the realm of your immediate duties, it is important that your forward those requests to the Executive Director's office," Lee wrote in a memorandum to the supervisors.

In late July, Bergann, Martino and Taylor announced through Brown that they would seek to form a union to protect themselves against retaliatory actions. Brown says Tomicich and Bergann have also filed workers' compensation claims against the library, claiming that stress caused by the alleged harassment has adversely impacted their health. He is not representing them in those claims.

Two other managers, meanwhile, simply quit when Ballantyne's library board was sent packing. One was Joanne Dodds, a 29-year library veteran who served as director of marketing and public relations. Dodds said the upheaval played a significant part in her decision to leave, but she declined to elaborate.

The other manager who left was Jan Irving, supervisor of youth services. Irving blames Lee for driving a wedge between library employees, saying he pressured staff to support him in his fight against the library board. "He was so public to the staff and me about his hatred of the board that I felt relief when he left," Irving later recounted in a letter.

In the months after Lee was fired, co-workers kept nagging Irving to join the effort to have him reinstated, she said. When she declined, "my formerly devoted staff, that I had worked with well, became withdrawn and even abusive." One co-worker "stopped talking with me or looking at me directly."

In June, when she learned the new library board was rehiring Lee, she decided to quit. "I could no longer work there under these awful conditions," Irving said.

Lee, meanwhile, says he never threatened any library employees but had a frank discussion with Bergann, Martino and Taylor when he returned to the library.

"I wanted to sit down with everybody when I came back, and particularly with those three guys," Lee said. Noting that Irving had resigned, he told the three, "If you find that for any reason in the next four weeks that you simply can't work with me, then maybe that [resigning] is something you want to consider, too -- but that's totally your choice."

Lee defended his July 11 directive, saying it's improper for employees to speak publicly about matters not pertaining directly to their job responsibilities.

If someone were to ask an employee "about matters that are legal, or [about] management of the organization, I don't think it's right that he start giving his opinion," Lee said. It should be "channeled to the top of the organization."

None of Brown's clients were demoted or received pay cuts while Lee was interim director, Lee notes. He says he doesn't understand why they keep complaining.

"I mean, at what point do you finally go, 'Hey, the game's over -- I guess I better work with the organization rather trying to keep throwing sugar in the gas tank'?" Lee asked.

Gag order denied

At the end of July, Lee left Pueblo for good to begin his new job in Illinois. In his place, the new library board has appointed three librarians to share the job as interim directors, while a national search for a permanent replacement is conducted.

But Brown says that doesn't alleviate his clients' concerns. The three interim directors -- Cox, Kathy Knox and Carol Rooney -- were all strong Lee backers.

Cox, in interviews, acknowledged that tensions remain between the new directors and Bergann, Martino and Taylor -- although she dismissed the trio's complaints and allegations as unfounded.

"We did get rid of a corrupt, or at least improper, board that was doing improper things, and anybody who was involved with them probably does feel a little lost right now," Cox said. "But there's no retaliation, and nobody here has ever harassed anyone."

Cox also said the directive from Lee that Brown describes as a "gag order" -- which still remains in effect -- wasn't meant to stop supervisors from speaking with anybody.

"There's no gag order," she said. "None of that is true."

Nuez, the new library board president, also says he doesn't understand why anyone's complaining.

"Everybody has their job," Nuez said, "so I don't know where the concern is."

Nuez said he wasn't even familiar with Lee's "gag order."

"I haven't seen any document to that effect," Nuez said. "I don't know anything about it."

Brown accuses the library district of deliberately ignoring his clients' concerns. In fact, he wrote to the library board and its attorney, Jeff Chostner, in July, asking that the "gag order" against supervisors be lifted.

"The 'gag order' is so sweeping that it infringes on their First Amendment rights to speech and assembly," Brown wrote.

Brown also has notified the board in writing that he believes Lee himself engaged in financial misconduct by making an $83,000 down payment to a furniture business for shelves for the new library, without having signed a contract. Lee says the payment was legitimate and was required in order to secure a bid for the shelves.

As of press time, Brown said he has received no response whatsoever to any of his correspondence to the library district, which also includes an open-records request that he submitted on July 15, asking for numerous records pertaining to his clients' case. By state law, government agencies must respond to open-records requests within three working days.

Having gotten nowhere, Brown now plans to file a lawsuit on his clients' behalf. "The lawsuit is in the drafting stages," he said.

Brown has also filed a complaint with the district attorney's office, asking Sandstrom to investigate the alleged harassment of his clients, Lee's down payment on the shelves, the library district's failure to respond to his open-records request, and a host of other alleged misdeeds.

Chostner, the library district's attorney, says the board isn't ignoring Brown's complaints. "Most of them have been presented to the board, and the board has taken them into consideration," Chostner said.

Chostner says he can't comment, however, on what, if any, action the board is taking. "Anything that's in litigation or deals with a personnel matter, I really can't make public."

Chostner acknowledged that the library district hadn't responded to Brown's open-records request within the required time frame, but added, "We are trying to get that information out as quick as we can."

'It's like a marriage'

With the grand opening of Pueblo's new library approaching on Oct. 25, many employees, volunteers, patrons and officials hope the big celebration being planned will help overshadow recent events and help the organization move on.

"What we ought to be thinking about is the new library," said Fogel, the former library board member. "It's going to be a wonderful new library and great for the community."

Brown, however, says a protracted legal battle probably lies ahead. And Dodds, the former librarian, says she wonders if the library will ever completely regain the trust of the public. The people of Pueblo, she said, have traditionally been highly supportive of their library system, as witnessed by their decision to pay $14 million in taxes for the new building.

"It's like a marriage -- once you have a really nasty fight, the relationship is never the same again," Dodds said. "So I think it has a very long-term impact."

Added Dodds, "I just really think it's sad that something that was very, very good got diminished by some regretful behavior."

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