Saturday, April 13, 2013

Condoning The Sale and Shrinkage Of The Brooklyn Heights Library, Does The Brooklyn Heights Associations Think Of Friends Group As A Fig Leaf? It Should Think Again.

Awning of 24 Monroe Place in foreground, 19 Monroe Place in background.  Two addresses associated with the sale and shrinkage of libraries
For some it has been a shock that the Brooklyn Heights Association is not taking a stand against the sale and shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights library, which involves a proposed contract to lock the deal in with a developer before the end of Bloomberg’s term.  It turns out that a fig leaf the BHA is using to explain why they are not standing up for the community may be awkwardly small and problematic.  The BHA reportedly says it was supporting the postion of a Friends of the Library group.  Judy Stanton, Executive Director of the BHA, told the Brooklyn Paper, “the Brooklyn Heights Association is simply supporting the position of the librarians and the Friends of the Library.”  (See: The Brooklyn Paper, March 29, 2013, Heights Association not a book critic: Group isn’t fighting library building sale, by Jaime Lutz.)

It probably seems counterintuitive that a group calling itself the “Friends” of the Brooklyn Heights Branch Library, Inc. would be choosing to accede to the sale and shrinkage of the neighborhood library without opposition.  Who is this so-called “Friends” group?  That’s a strange story to tell.  (As for the notion that “librarians” favor this, as stated by Ms. Stanton, the question is who is being referred to with the term “the librarians.”  I would say that most true “librarians” do not favor sale and shrinkage of this or other New York City library system assets.)

Once upon a time the Friends group was a tidy little group of neighborhood volunteers that raised funds to help support the Brooklyn Heights library.  Led by its former president Diana Prizeman, it was once more than 400 members strong.  Things, however, have changed.  In July of 2012 the group was taken over by Deborah Hallen and the number of trustees and its membership have dwindled drastically.  The group now has fewer than 200 members, which may have something to do with Hallan’s serial dismissal of many of the group’s trustees ever since she took the group over.  Though Hallen has taken control of the group she is technically not the president, only its secretary, but the group’s official president, Katy Louise Miller, has absented herself from the group's activities, perhaps troubled, with good reason, by various goings on.

Caldecott winner
Hallen became interested in resuming a former relationship with the Friends group in the fall of 2011 after the group held a September event honoring her husband, famed children’s book illustrator and Caldecott award winner, Paul O. Zelinsky.  (Previously, there had been plenty of reason for Mr. Zelinsky to have dealings with the libraries where his books can readily be found.)

In the fall of 2011, insiders knew that there were plans to sell the Brooklyn Heights library in a real estate deal although the public was, as yet, uniformed of this fact.  Shortly after Hallen took over the Friends group, the Brooklyn Heights library started having the reported insurmountable problems with its air conditioning system that have been cited as the Brooklyn Public Library system’s justification for selling the building.  The public was not informed that the building was to be sold until January of this year.

When Hallen took over the group she, by her own accounts, involved herself with lawyers and corporate housekeeping measures the exact purpose of which may be speculated upon.  She also started changing the composition of the board, dismissing trustees (but not the Friends’ nominal president) for infrequent attendance.  She also harshly criticized the prior administration of the group, leveling charges about faults she said she perceived.
Hallen’s own administration of the group would seem to raise comparably more questions.

Hallen is fighting hard to prevent her Friends group trustees from in any way opposing the sale and shrinkage of the library.  She recently sent an email to her trustees instructing them not to oppose the planned sale to a developer that involves the shrinkage of the library.  Said Hallen in her email:
If you are one of the Trustees who wants to tell me that we need to stop the sale, then please remove yourself as a Trustee, and we don't need to hear from you. We will accept any resignations.
This was an especially strange instruction since, as is evident from the group’s Facebook page records, the trustees never met to discuss and vote on whether or not to oppose the library sale and shrinkage after the idea of it was finally disclosed to the public.

The Friends group Facebook page states a position for the group about going along with the sale and shrinkage.  It uses different words but coincides with the BHA’s position with such exactitude that the two statements may likely have been the subject of some very careful lawyerly review.  It was posted on Facebook on Sunday March 17th, the same day the New York Times published an article supportive of the idea that city libraries and schools should be sold off to real estate developers `craving’ the properties.  While the Friends Facebook posting of this position was on the 17th, the BHA posted its own position (reliant on the Friends position) on Thursday, March 14th after its board voted.  Hallen, wrote in another email,“The BHA took their position after we took ours,” so apparently this public posting of the Friends position was held back for some period of time.

The posted position of the Friends may not even be the position of the Friends trustees.  On Facebook it is stated to be the position of the a “Steering Committee,” not the position of the Friends board.

This is what is on Facebook:
Here is the position statement of the Steering Committee of the FBHBL:

"For several hundred years, public lending libraries have contributed to American democracy and the ideal of equal opportunity for all citizens, offering free access to information to all people. The FBHBL, Inc.'s role is to insure that we are never without a Brooklyn Heights Branch Library. Our aim is to also prevent any interruption or degradation of library services in the course of the possible sale and development of the site of the existing branch. It is imperative that access to the public library is maintained in the face of logistical challenges, and that library service continues to be provided seamlessly to our community. Moreover, in keeping with the stated goals of the BPL, the FBHBL expects to exercise oversight and to provide meaningful input into the size and nature of any replacement facility.”
Whoever this “Steering Committee” committee is there appear to be many trustees who don’t know who it is or when such a committee was created to issue statements on behalf of the group.  One trustee I talked to was even unaware that the Friends group had taken a position, even as of this last week, telling me that she was still unsure what position the Friends would take because it involved so many difficult  questions that would need to be thought about.
Click to enlarge: Chart from prior NNY article comparing positions of BHA, BPL, and inferred developer and Citizens Defending Libraries.  The position of the Friends, though worded differently, is identical to that of the BHA.
Meanwhile, Hallen is giving her trustees other apparently inaccurate instruction about how it is not within their power to oppose the library’s sale.  In the email first quoted above she writes (the ALL CAPS lettering is hers):
ALSO PLEASE UNDERSTAND that we are not in the position of trying to stop the sale. We are a 501(c) 3 Organization and have to adhere to our by-laws. Recall that our position is to have continuity of library service no matter what happens to the building.
There is no reason why a 501(c)(3) organization, a charitable organization, could not oppose the sale or advocate for a bigger library as you might expect it to.  Former Friends president Diana Prizeman said she knows of nothing in the by-laws in place when she was in change that would prevent it.  It would be odd for a set of by-laws to include such a position and even odder if such a provision were inserted into the by-laws at a time when nobody except insiders knew that the library was going to be put up for sale.

Hallen also invokes professional advice to tell the trustees they can’t oppose the sale:
I have been told that as a representative of the Friends (by our attorney and accountant) that we cannot oppose the impending sale 
Again, this would be a very strange thing for an accountant or a lawyer to advise the Friends group, but Ms. Hallen is not specifying who this lawyer is or who the accountant is.  It is not clear that any of the trustees know who she is talking about.  One guess is that a lawyer Ms. Hallen may be conferring with is Roger Adler, a criminal defense lawyer, who has been involved in politics and is the husband of  Renée Adler, the trustee who has been made the new treasurer of the Friends group.  One reason to think this is that when Citizens Defending Libraries was mobilizing to issue a petition (that can be signed online) and oppose the sale of the library the suggestion was made, via the Friends group, that CDL should seek the counsel of Mr. Adler, who was characterized at the time as an attorney interested in the subject of libraries.  (I am one of those involved with organizing Citizens Defending Libraries.)

There are now only thirteen remaining trustees of the Friends group, including Ms. Hallen, Ms. Adler, and Ms. Miller.

One thing that is interesting is that there is a concentration of these trustees that are associated with close-together Monroe Place addresses.  Monroe Place is the one block long Brooklyn Heights street where Ms. Hallen lives.  Ms. Hallen and at least two other trustees live at the same Monroe Place.  At least one other trustee lives on Monroe Place at a Monroe Place address that is just one digit different.  According to public records another of trustee’s phone numbers has been associated with another nearby Monroe Place address.  What makes all of this even more interesting is that Ms. Hallen’s Monroe Place address is almost directly across the street from Monroe Place brownstone townhouse of David G. Offensend. . .
David G. Offensend
. . . David Offensend is a very important figure when it comes to libraries and their selling off.  Mr. Offensend left Wall Street to go to work for New York Public Library in 2004 and, according to NYPL documents and other accounts, is the individual who is perhaps most significantly responsible for the secretive sale-for-shrinkage of Manhattan’s beloved Donnell library, which stood across the street from MOMA.  That sale of that library was suddenly announced to the public in November of 2007.  Mr. Offensend is also significantly responsible for the consolidating shrinkage of the NYPL Central Library Plan pursuant to which, if library and city officials have their way, will involve the irreversible demolition of the 42nd Street Central Reference Library’s famed research stacks before Mayor Bloomberg leaves office.  The proposed sale-for-shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights library almost exactly replicates the sale-for-shrinkage of Donnell (where a 50-story luxury hotel and condominium residence building is now under construction) even though that transaction is much reviled by the public.
Two slides, top and bottom, from NYPL March 2008 staff briefing on new NYPL real estate strategies.  Note Dave Offensend mention for October 2007 and asterisks about what was not previously disclosed to staff.
Mr. Offensend is also a former president of the Brooklyn Heights Association. Talking about the  shock that the Brooklyn Heights Association is not taking a stand against the sale and shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights library is where we began.
Another slide from the March 2008 presentation.  Note the technospeak, "Provide better service to users through fewer service points".

Ms. Hallen has recently been talking about the Friends having a big gala event that will involve a significantly different level of opulence than applied to the organization in all the years of its prior, tidy, simpler existence.  In theory there is money coming for such an event from somewhere, but the originally scheduled spring date for the gala has been postponed and it is now planned for sometime closer to the signing of the contract certain people want to see to transfer the library to a developer before Bloomberg leaves office.

What does all this mean?  It will no doubt become clearer as additional facts are emerge and are sorted out.  Some coincidences in the world are just coincidences but these coincidences should at least cause us to think about things that are worthwhile to think about.  One of the most important to consider: Why, when so many people agree that the Donnell library sale was so disastrously conceived and executed, should we now be replicating that transaction so closely with the rushed sale of the Brooklyn Heights library?   

As stated at the beginning of this post, the Friends of the Library group rag-tagging under the dictatorial Hallen is a very awkward fig leaf for the Brooklyn Heights Association to be hiding behind.  That’s especially true as Ms. Hallen, who seems to be bludgeoning her trustees with misinformation and threats, may not even have succeeded in getting them to vote in favor of her position that they should let the library be sold and shrunk.

Bringing it full circle: Not only is the BHA hiding behind the Friends group, Ms. Hallen is also encouraging the Friends group, in round robin fashion, to think that they can take comfort in their association with the BHA.  Stressing the linakge of the BHA and Friends positions, Hallen writes: “The BHA is a much larger force than we.”  Safety in numbers?: It’s an ironic argument when it comes to this shrinking Friends group.

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