Public questions trustees on long absence of elections
Community members have begun shining a light on the Del Norte County Library Board’s election process, and what’s been revealed beneath the electoral fog has the board fending off the same accusations of dishonesty and unprofessionalism that plague its recently publicized financial affairs.
Issues surrounding the board’s formal election process, or rather its alleged lack of one, were a major cause of community concern at the Library District’s special meeting last week, echoing a 2011–2012 Del Norte Grand Jury report that concluded the process has been “bypassed” since 1990 — the last time a library trustee position has been on a local ballot. Like the library’s undisclosed fund balance, the two principal concerns surrounding library district elections — exactly how the board appoints new trustees to its ranks and why a Library Board position hasn’t gone to election in over two decades — have community members up in arms about how the board is run and its tendency to “skirt the rules,” as one community member said.
“I was 8 years old (the last time the board had an election),” said Angela Stanley, who intends to run for a trustee position in November.
Library trustees insist that their process, which centers around appointing new trustees when old ones step down, negating any need to appear on local ballots and saving on filing costs, are simply cost-cutting measures that have the library’s best interests at heart. However, in light of the library’s previously undisclosed $346,741 fund balance and the accusations of poor money management surrounding that issue, community members say the penny-pinching is not only unnecessary, it’s harmful to the library and democracy.
“I appreciate fiscal responsibility, but sometimes democracy requires a price,” a meeting attendee said. “You’re depriving people of choice, which is their democratic right to have in this country. I think it’s more important to have a choice than to save money.”
Appointing a new trustee
The rules surrounding a trustee appointment, according to statute 8000.02 in the Library District’s policy manual, are: “If a vacancy should occur on the Board of Trustees, the Trustees shall fill that vacancy as soon as possible by advertising the vacancy in the newspaper. Interested persons shall submit an application form or resume which will be reviewed in open session. The Trustees may then select from the applicants a new Trustee who is to serve until the next general election. This position is subject to the approval of the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors.”
But it’s questionable how closely these rules were followed, as well as how honest the board was with community members about the process, according to Triplicate interviews with trustees and trustee applicants and a recording of the board’s June meeting, which is when the latest appointment was made.
When the board was accepting applications for a replacement for Trustee Carol Layton, who resigned from the board in May, three people applied: Mark Raintree, Sarah Noll and David Sorani. Raintree, who was ultimately selected to fill the position but hasn’t yet been approved by the Board of Supervisors, was contacted by the board and showed up at the June meeting to be interviewed when the selection happened. Noll and Sorani, however, said they were never contacted and didn’t even know to be at the meeting.
“I’m really curious and a little frustrated as to why I was never contacted or no one ever even inquired about my application,” Noll said at last Thursday’s meeting. “(Trustees) went ahead and chose somebody else, and I’m here today to try and find out why that happened and to try to understand what the process is. There has to be a formal process. You can’t just choose people for a position like this.”
Noll went on to say that the board chose Raintree because they knew him the best, which trustees denied. They said their association with Raintree, who has volunteered at the library since last July, was only “part of (the reason)” he was selected, but a formal process is in place and all the applications were reviewed. Raintree was simply the best choice, Board President Dennis Sutton said.
However, a recording of the board’s June meeting, provided to the Triplicate by Trustee John Mertes, suggests inaccuracies in Sutton’s description.
“I think we’ve kind of picked one, didn’t we?” said Sutton, referring to a new trustee, in the recording.
“We haven’t picked one that I know of — I haven’t seen the applications,” Mertes replied.
“Well, someone that we know the best,” Sutton said.
“Since Mark’s here,” Trustee Colleen Luttrell said in reference to Raintree, who was in the audience.
Then the trustees interviewed Raintree while Mertes paged through the other two applications.
“It’d be sort of nice to talk to Sarah, but since she isn’t here … was she invited to this meeting?” Mertes asked.
“They all were,” Library Manager Teena Capshaw answered. “The meeting was posted.”
The board’s meeting notices are pinned on the library’s bulletin board and nowhere else. Many local boards post meeting notices online.
“I mean, was she specifically invited?” Mertes asks.
“I left a message,” Luttrell said. “One of them we tried calling, and the line was —”
“They all knew that today was the meeting,” Capshaw said.
Mertes accepted that answer and moved to nominate Raintree, and Luttrell seconded the nomination, but before a vote could be taken, Angela Glore, one of two in attendance beside Raintree, asked about input from the public.
“Well, wait. Don’t you ask for discussion?” she said.
“It’s only between the board members. It’s not public,” Sutton replied.
“No, it can come to public comment,” Mertes said. “Yes, it has to.”
“No, not for this,” Sutton argued.
“Yes,” Mertes countered sharply.
Then Glore continued: “I have no objection to Mark, but I do know Sarah, and I’d like to clarify if she was invited or told that she should be here to answer questions because otherwise it’s a little unfair that she may miss out on this because she’s not here.”
“I did get a call from the other gentleman who applied,” Capshaw said. “He was asking if he could talk to a board member, and I said that there’s not a board member here but I can give you phone numbers, and he said, ‘I don’t think I can be at the meeting.’ But the meeting was posted and everybody did get a message.”
Noll, however, said that she was never contacted, and there was no way she could have missed a message.
“Nobody contacted me at all,” Noll said in an interview with the Triplicate. “What frustrated me the most was that after the (June) meeting, when I learned they had chosen somebody I found out they had said they contacted me. They didn’t even do what they had told everyone they had done.”
In contradiction to what was said at the June meeting, last week Capshaw said that applicants hadn’t been contacted individually.
“I said that I talked to the other man who had applied,” Capshaw said, referring to what she said at the June meeting. “He called and said he could not make the meeting and he wanted to talk to board members. I gave him Dennis and John’s contacts because he couldn’t be at the meeting. He called. I did not call him.”
However, complicating the situation further, Sorani said not only was he never contacted, he also never called and definitely didn’t receive anyone’s phone numbers.
“I put on the application that I probably wouldn’t be available in June,” said Sorani, who recently moved to the area from San Jose. “We were still doing a lot of transitioning between San Jose and here. I wrote that I wouldn’t be able to make that particular meeting.”
Additionally, Sorani, who wasn’t in attendance at last week’s special meeting, said that he hadn’t even known a trustee had been selected and that his interview with the Triplicate on Wednesday was the first time he’d been contacted in regard to the trustee appointment.
For his part, Sutton said that he thinks the process was fair but added that the board should have sent a letter to the rejected applicants telling them the news.
“I’ve never been where you interview everybody who puts an application in,” Sutton said, referring to past interview processes he’s been involved with. “We had three applications and we looked at those applications and thought, ‘Well, this guy will be the best for the job.’ And I still think he’s the best for the job. We already knew Mark. He’s been working with the computers for over a year. It wasn’t the only thing — I just think he’ll do really good on the board. The other two people we didn’t know at all.”
Circumventing the election
The way trustees are appointed is only part of a larger trustee replacement practice that the 2011–2012 Del Norte Grand Jury Report said, while economical, “circumvents the election process. … The Grand Jury is aware of costs related to a county wide district ballot and in concept sounds very prudent,” the Grand Jury wrote. “The cost saving merits are worthy of consideration but the concern is lost when in practice it eliminated the opportunity for county wide elected members.”
While the Grand Jury is aware of election costs, it’s debatable how aware the Library Board is.
At the meeting last Thursday, Sutton and Luttrell repeatedly referred to election costs of up to $18,000 as the reason the board sidesteps appearing on the ballot, not to mention the fact that no one ever files papers to be on the board anyway, they said.
“If you file, if we have to go to elections, it’s $18,000,” Sutton said, adding that he’d step down from the board in order to save the library that money.
In reply, Mertes said that when he had talked to County Clerk-Recorder Alissia Northrup about it last month, Northrup had told him election costs are actually closer to $5,000, if that.
“Well, that’s not what she told me,” Sutton told Mertes. “(She said) 13 to 18 thousand. 13 to 18 thousand,” he repeated. “In the past it’s been $10,000 to $13,000. And then it went up.”
However, Northrup, in an interview with the Triplicate, said that she hadn’t talked to Sutton about election costs and that there’s no way that special district filing costs would be so expensive.
“It would depend on the expenses — I don’t know what my postage or programming fees are going to be — but I would say between $2,000 and $3,000. There’s no way it’s going to be $18,000. Even like the harbor or the school district, the absolute highest it would be is $5,000. I haven’t talked to Mr. Sutton, and I’m not going to say he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but I’m not going to bill the library district $18,000 for an election.”
When told that Northrup had said $18,000 isn’t an accurate figure, Sutton said that he’d been told “by someone in the office” — which Northrup also denied. Northrup added that maybe Sutton was referring to the cost of putting a 2006 special measure on the ballot, even though she said she wasn’t sure how much that cost and the figure wasn’t readily available. That measure, which was ultimately voted down by county residents, would have increased sales tax by one-quarter of one percent to generate an estimated $400,000 a year for the Library District.
Either way, trustees said that beyond the cost of elections, nobody ever files as a candidate to be on the board anyway, which is the actual reason the board never goes to election.
“I don’t understand their problem,” Sutton said. “If nobody’s running, why do you have to spend $18,000 on an election. I don’t see anything wrong with that — why pay $18,000 just because? We’ve been doing this for years and we’ve been putting in $10,000 to $13,000 in the budget each year for election, if we have to go.”
“If we have to go” is looking increasingly likely, according to announcements made by the two community members who have announced their intention to run for a trustee position in November, when Sutton and Trustee Jeanne Bishop’s terms are up.
“Regardless if someone steps down in order to not have an election, I’m still filing my papers,” Stanley said. “Because I believe that I should have the opportunity to run, and I believe that people should have the opportunity to say if they want me on the board or not.”