Birmingham Public Library Atmosphere ‘Toxic’ ‘Hostile,’ Employees Say. Leadership ‘Not for Faint of Heart,’ New Director Responds.

Birmingham Public Library Board meets Oct. 18, 2018. (Source: Sam Prickett)

Nearly 20 Birmingham Public Library employees addressed the library’s board of directors Tuesday night, expressing concern over what they described as a “hostile” work environment that has emerged under the library’s new leadership.

The group, speaking through spokesperson Monica King Slater, did not mention anyone by name, but it was clear that their frustration was directed toward Floyd Council, the library’s executive director, who is nearing the end of his probationary period in the position.

Council’s leadership has been the subject of controversy since he started the job in November 2017. With Tuesday marking the board’s last regular meeting before the end of Council’s yearlong probationary period , the employees warned board members that the “toxic” environment was “a time bomb waiting to explode” and urged the board to “do the right thing.”

 “A Negative Shift in the Atmosphere”

Though close to 20 employees attended Tuesday’s meeting — with four prepared to deliver remarks — library board President James Sullivan decided that only one would be allowed to speak “so that the meeting won’t go overboard.”

He initially cut off Slater after two minutes, just as she said, “Morale across the entire Birmingham Public Library system has plunged to a very low point, one I have never experienced in all my years of being employed here.” After objections from several board members, Sullivan relented and allowed Slater back into the board room to finish her prepared statement.

As her coworkers looked on, Slater, who has worked at the library for 18 years, described “blatant and humiliating actions” that had turned the library into a “hostile, toxic work environment for us all” over the past year.

“The majority of the staff  here was very excited about new leadership,” she said. “Not long after that, the excitement began to fade quickly and there began a negative shift in the atmosphere … . Most of us in this library system have been here long enough to know that with new leadership, changes will occur. It’s expected. It comes with the territory. But never did we imagine such a change would come at a high price.

“Our reputation (and) our work ethic has been demeaned,” she said. “Some of us have been berated and treated like children in front of other employees and patrons … . We fear retaliation if we make a suggestion, have an idea, or speak up .. . Fear and uncertainty are perpetuated throughout this system … . A place once known as a home away from home has now become a dreary, dark place, an empty vessel.”

Slater ended her statement by asking board members to “protect” her and her co-workers “from retaliation or bullying from anyone.”

Criticisms and Closed Doors

The past year at the Birmingham Public Library has been marked by growing employee dissatisfaction, with many employees arguing that Council’s leadership is to blame. Several high-profile staffers resigned several months into Council’s tenure, including chief of security Kevin Bernal and Director of Development Olivia Alison.

Many who identified themselves as BPL employees posted detailed criticisms of Council’s leadership online, saying that he belittled and micromanaged employees and did not communicate effectively with staffers. The removal of the library lobby’s security desk also raised concerns about workplace safety. Those comments prompted a survey, conducted by the library’s Long-Range Planning Committee in May, which found employee morale to be very low.

But at the six-month mark of Council’s tenure, the board of trustees said that he still had their support. “Mr. Council has gone above and beyond during the last weeks and months,” trustee Kimberly Richardson said then.

Concerns were again raised when the board met Sept. 11 in a private, executive session to discuss a complaint against an employee governed by the board. According to the board’s attorney, the grievance involved a violation of state ethics law. But due to the closed-door nature of executive sessions, no specifics were made public.

Only two BPL employees report directly to the board — Council and Deputy Director Sandra Vick Lee. The board did not take any action after that Sept. 11 meeting.

Council Responds

The library’s last appointed executive director, Angela Fisher Hall, was terminated by the board after her first year on the job. Council fought against following in her footsteps when he addressed the board at the end of the meeting. He described employees who showed up at the meeting to speak as unrepresentative of the BPL’s 287-person staff.

“When you go through change processes, you’re always going to have extreme outliers, and sometimes people will develop a coalition because what they want is a scandal,” he said.

He also remarked that most of the library staff, “including a lot of the beautiful staff who showed up today with concerns that they still want to express,” actually do not report directly to him. “(They) all have direct supervisors,” he said.

Council echoed statements he had made in May about the strength of character required to lead. “It takes courage in a leadership capacity to absolutely change anything, and we have tried to be as sensitive as we can to every single employee in the library system,” he said. “Leadership is not for the faint of heart. There are days when I hear things that people say and do to me and talk about me to where I could spend a whole day crying. But I am a man of faith; I am a man of character. If there’s a situation where something needs to be talked about, I’m always willing and ready to listen to concerns. We have an open-door policy.”

After the board went into a short executive session, Council’s fate remained undecided. Sullivan said that the matter would require “further discussion” with legal counsel before being resolved.

As the meeting ended, Sullivan offered a closing reassurance that reflected Slater’s closing remarks. “I just want to let everybody know, we’re going to do the right thing,” he said.