Two years after taking over the Altadena Library District in 2014, Mindy Kittay faced resistance from her staff, some of whom claimed she moved too quickly and was too demanding in her desire to see changes made.
With those bridges now rebuilt, Kittay has again found herself under fire, only this time from the library’s board of trustees that once supported her, with three members of the five-person volunteer panel allegedly violating the state’s open meeting law by engaging in an email attack on Kittay, resulting in her going on medical leave.
As a result of disclosures by attorneys representing Kittay, one of the three board members has resigned, with the other two being urged to step down.
Kittay, however, has taken the controversy in stride, saying she looks forward to returning to the library.
“I just want to return to work and continue to do what I am passionate about,’ said Kittay in a statement released by her attorneys, Dale Gronemeier and Elbie Hickambottom Jr. They have advised Kittay to not to speak with the press.
“I love this community and I feel that I do have much more to contribute,” Kittay said through them.
GETTING THINGS DONE
The library that Kittay took over in 2014 was in dire need of help. In addition to outdated technology, the exterior doors needed to be chained shut at night, the roof leaked, the carpet was moldy, lighting fixtures were broken and the parking lot was home and bathroom to some with nowhere else to go.
“I remember the chains on the doors and the broken lights,” says library patron Charles Bailey. “I also remember wondering if they would ever get fixed. I’m glad they finally did.”
In March 2017, the library closed for six weeks in order to do renovations, paid for with $320,000 in federal funds and a $75,000 donation from the Altadena Library Foundation. Kittay and library Facilities Manager Johnathan Arevalo did the majority of oversight, bringing the project in on time and under budget, while keeping the staff working on other items that needed attention.
In addition to the Second Saturday Concerts, which bring artists, vendors and the community together, the library also now has laptops that can be checked out. The community room projection and sound systems, broken for years, have been replaced with state of the art equipment. Kittay also implemented Community Conversations, a program aimed at “turning out” from the library and engaging patrons in their neighborhoods, and the recently opened the Seed Library, a county program that allows members to “borrow” seeds and then return those from food produced from the original seeds.
BREAKIN’ THE LAW
In September 2016, the board of trustees stood behind Kittay in her disagreements with staff members, who, according to a survey done in October are now fully behind the culture being created by Kittay, saying the library is headed in the right direction.
But now, since Kittay has become a bit of a thorn in the side of the board by calling some of them out on alleged violations of the Brown Act, that once positive relationship between her and the trustees appears to have soured.
Those alleged violations included trying to improperly change minutes from a previous meeting, voting in secret session, amending the library budget without putting it on the agenda as an action item, and an attempt to allow only residents of Altadena to speak during public comment portions of the board’s monthly meetings.
Community members wrote letters or commented publicly in support of Kittay at the Oct. 23 board meeting, at which time she underwent a performance review.
While most of the library patrons are pleased with the progress made under Kittay, there are some who feel differently.
“I have serious concerns about what has been happening within our library over the last three years” said longtime library supporter David Herman. Herman was a number of candidates vying for the board seat left vacant in January by former member Adalila Zelada-Garcia.
Other contenders were community activist Rene Amy and attorney Stephen Svetch, who works in the Attorney General’s Office with Trustee Armando Zambrano. The board ultimately appointed South Pasadena School District Librarian Betsy Kahn, an outcome which pleased people at the meeting.
“I am constantly delighted by the ways I see the Altadena Library in the forefront of what is happening in public libraries nationally,” Kahn said, “It is truly a community treasure.”
THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES
From the response to a Public Records Act request filed in January by Mark Mariscal, former board president and current president of Friends of the Altadena Library, it was learned that Board members Ira Bershatsky, John McDonald and Zambrano may have violated the Brown Act by circulating emails discussing and making decisions on board agenda items outside of board meetings. Some of their emailed remarks also contained disparaging remarks about Kittay. One board member referred to Kittay as “that idiot Mindy.” They even discussed changing the amount of time allowed for Kittay to give her director’s report from 10 to two minutes.
In another PRA response, this one filed by activist Amy last January, Bershatsky writes, “I suggest that you remember that you work for us. We do not work for you” when Kittay urged trustees to operate in accordance with the Brown Act.
On Jan. 23, Kittay went on medical leave and has yet to return.
Attorneys for Kittay distributed copies of various emails at the board’s March 29 meeting, calling McDonald, Zambrano and Bershatsky out for their secret email activity.
“The harassment of Mindy Kittay has done serious damage to her health. It is a medical decision as to if and when she can return to work,” concluded Gronemeier.
On March 30, McDonald resigned. Later that day, members of the community began sending emails to the remaining two board members, Zambrano and Bershatsky, demanding their resignations.
Although it has been a traumatic year for Kittay, she tries to remain positive.
“When I think about what can be accomplished with a Board of Trustees made up of Altadenans who are engaged, passionate and supportive of the combined vision of the community, staff and support organizations as facilitated by the director, who want to put in the time to thoughtfully provide the best Library District possible for this community, I am encouraged and motivated.” Kittay said through her attorneys. n