All’s Not Quiet at Birmingham Public Library: Board Surveys Employees after Criticism of Director

Floyd Council, executive director, Birmingham Public Library

A survey asking the Birmingham Public Library’s 285 employees about staff morale was conducted last week amid growing concerns over employee dissatisfaction and public criticism of the library’s new executive director.

The online survey allowed employees to respond anonymously.

James Sullivan, president of the BPL board of trustees, said the staff survey was prompted in part by concern about unfavorable comments from BPL employees in response to an online article about the library’s new executive director, Floyd Council.

“We’ve seen the comments, and we are taking everyone’s concerns seriously. We are doing the survey to see what people are saying and to gauge morale. Whatever they say, we are going to address and take appropriate action,” said Sullivan, who has served on the board since 2016 and was reappointed in 2018.

The deadline for responding to the survey was Friday. The board’s personnel committee will review the survey responses and report results to the board.

“We want to make sure we are doing all we can to address employee concerns,” Sullivan said. Sullivan noted that periodic employee surveys are part of the board’s strategic plan.

The board does not expect the report on survey results to be ready by the board of trustee’s regular monthly meeting, Tuesday afternoon, or to be on the agenda for discussion. However, Sullivan said he and board members are committed to hearing from employees and taking action if needed. “It’s our responsibility to answer any and all concerns,” Sullivan said.

Story Prompts Public Complaints

It was an article by Iron City Ink reporter Jesse Chambers posted at the local monthly’s website about the new library executive director that prompted dozens of detailed comments critical of Council’s actions and interactions with staff since being named to the post in November.

Birmmingham Public Library (Source: Friends of the Birmingham Public Library)

In posts in the comment section following the story, many commenters identified themselves as BPL employees. They detailed concerns about Council’s treatment of employees, his management style and the loss of key personnel who resigned in recent months.

The comments were removed from the Iron City Ink site several days after the story ran online, said Iron City Ink publisher Dan Starnes of Starnes Publishing. Starnes said he had the posts removed as part of the publication’s policy of removing comments that include personal attacks, vulgar language or hate speech.

“These particular comments fell under the category of personal attacks,” Starnes said. The article about the new library director ran online and in the April printed edition of Iron City Ink.

While comments were still posted, copies of them were saved by some library employees and later shared with BirminghamWatch by a concerned library employee.

The same employee, who did not want to be identified, said discontent is high and morale low among many library employees because of what commenters called Council’s belittling comments, lack of appropriate communication, disrespect, micromanagement and a growing “environment of suspicion” at the library.

Two key library employees resigned in recent months and other staff members, including one in a “high-profile position”, are actively applying for jobs elsewhere, the employee said.

Recent resignations confirmed by BirminghamWatch include chief of  security Kevin Bernal, a retired Secret Service agent, and Director of Development Olivia Alison, an experienced fundraiser who previously worked with Birmingham Botanical Garden and Colonial Williamsburg.

Reached for comment, Council said, “We can’t issue any response on this type of matter due to pending review from the board.”

Staff Survey Questions

James Sullivan, President, Birmingham Library Board

The BPL Staff Survey 2018 was emailed to employees at the Birmingham Public Library’s 19 branches via early last week. Sullivan noted that periodic employee surveys are part of the board’s strategic plan.

The online survey asked employees to rate their view of staff morale, their happiness in their current jobs and their feelings of safety at work.  Employees were asked whether the current administration welcomes and accepts feedback and whether the employee knows and understands how to address concerns, complaints and formal grievances. Blank spaces were provided for written comments and suggestions, including a blank space to “Share in your own words any open feedback about BPL.”

Council’s History and Appointment

The board of trustees hired Council as executive director in November 2017. Council is the first African-American man to hold the top position at the city’s library system.  Two African-American women have been in the top position in the past.

A native of Mississippi and a U.S. Army veteran, Council has a bachelor’s degree in media communications from American College and a master’s degree in library and information science from Florida State University. He most recently worked as central library administrator for the Atlanta Fulton Public Library System and had positions with libraries in Dallas, St. Louis and Nashville over the past 15 years, according to the Oct. 23, news release from BPL announcing Council’s appointment.

Council’s appointment followed a 16-month search for an executive director, sparked by the May 2016 resignation of former Executive Director Angela Fisher Hall. Current BPL Deputy Director Sandra Lee Vick served as acting executive director during the search period, said Roy Williams, library director of public relations.

The largest library system in Alabama and part of the city of Birmingham for more than 100 years, the Birmingham Public Library is guided by a 10-member board of trustees. Trustees are appointed by the Birmingham City Council.

The current board includes Sullivan, trustee since 2016 who was elected president in 2018; Gwendolyn R. Amamoo, vice president and trustee since 2008; retired Circuit Judge Scott Vowell, parliamentarian and board member since 2011. Other trustees are: Georgia Morgan Blair, appointed in 2012; Fatima Carter, the newest board member, appointed in February; Willie Davis III, appointed in 2016; Kimberly Richardson, on the board since 2013; Eunice Rogers, appointed in 2016; Dora Sims, appointed in 2010; and Gwendolyn B. Guster Welch, the longest-serving trustee, originally appointed in 2002.

(Editor’s Note:  This story has been corrected to reflect that Council is the third African-American to serve as executive director of the Birmingham Public Library. Also, the former Director of Development for the library is Olivia Alison, not Allison.  )