By KEVIN BEESE
BELLWOOD | At 70 years of age and arthritis in her knees, climbing up porch steps is not the easiest activity for Wanda Gipson. In spite of the challenge that going up and down steps poses for her, the president of the Friends of the Bellwood Library has been going to houses in the village getting signatures on petitions to show community support for Library Director Jacqueline Spratt.
“If we don’t pay attention, we’ll be saying ‘We used to have a library,’” Gipson said this week regarding what she views as shenanigans on the Library Board. Gipson and other residents have been circulating petitions in support of Spratt after the Library Director came under fire from some board members and efforts were made to put her on administrative leave.
After a closed session held June 29 in the bathroom of the Bellwood Public Library, assembled Library Board members at a special meeting voted to put Spratt on paid administrative leave.
“They did not give a reason. They just put her on administrative leave,” said Connie Riales, a Library Board member who was at the library earlier June 29 for a special meeting that never took place.
A special meeting had been called for 4:30 p.m. that day, but no business was conducted due to the lack of a quorum (a majority of the board’s seven members being present). Board minutes show that library Trustees Deborah Giles, Dorothy Clark-Smith and Riales were present, and that board President Mary Clements, Janice English and Sharon Tharpe were absent.
This has been a common occurrence with one side or the other of the divided board not showing up as the board has not had a quorum since February. Without a quorum, no board business is able to be conducted. However, on June 29, a second special meeting was called for 6:30 p.m., which Clements, English and Tharpe attended, and Giles, Clark-Smith and Riales did not. Riales said that Spratt refused to remove notice of the 4:30 p.m. meeting and substitute in the 6:30 p.m. meeting because the 4:30 p.m. meeting had already been posted on the library’s website and on the facility’s door.
Providing an apparent quorum for the 6:30 p.m. meeting, however, was Gwendolyn Reese. At one time the seventh member of the Library Board, Reese was appointed in March during what the opposition claims was an illegal meeting. There was not 48 hours’ notice of the meeting and no agenda posted prior to the meeting, opponents contend, both violations of the Illinois Open Meetings Act. They also contend the appointment only got the fourth required board when board Trustee J.B. Carr, who had just resigned from the post, voted in favor of Reece’s appointment.
The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office is reviewing the case. Reese’s position is listed as vacant on the library’s website. The library’s law firm sent an email to Spratt the evening of June 29 telling her that she was being placed on paid administrative leave, Gipson said. Riales said Clements and political heavyweight Chuck Baxter went the next day to change the locks on Spratt’s office, but opposition forces got the Bellwood police involved who noted that a court decree was required to get such action accomplished. Two days of court hearings last week led to Spratt being returned to her position and the actions taken in the special meeting with the apparent quorum ruled invalid.
“The reason they are targeting her is because she will tell them what the Illinois statutes are,” Gipson said. “This is a public library board. I think these people want to bypass the laws. They want to be in charge of hiring and firing. (Spratt) will tell them what they are doing is against the statutes and that it is not part of their duties.” Gipson said it is frustrating to watch the politics playing out on the Library Board with those aligned with Baxter. “These people, I am just so disgusted with them,” Gipson said. “They have no interest in what goes on at the library. None of them care about the Bellwood Public Library.”
Gipson said Baxter, who was involved with the District 88 School Board for years, is focusing his attention on the Library Board now that reformers are changing things in the School District. “I call him the puppet master,” Gipson said. “He is pulling his strings.” Baxter could not be reached for comment as of press time regarding the Library Board’s actions against Spratt or Gipson’s allegations about him.
During their special meeting, Clements and the other trustees altered the library’s bylaws to say that Library Board members could not serve on another government board. Both Giles and Clark-Smith also serve on the District 88 Board.
The Clements-led meeting also saw the board alter bylaws saying that the Library Board has the right to hire and fire library employees. Currently, those responsibilities fall solely with the library director. The trustees also hired an outside person to look for a new library director.
“They did a lot,” Riales laughed, when talking about the actions taken. Gipson said the Clements-led board’s actions were out of order. “What they did was illegal,” Gipson said. “To change the bylaws you need a bylaws committee.”