By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Harsh criticism of Sandra Cooper’s management of the sprawling Sonoma County Library system is fueling calls for county
supervisors to seek more authority over her position, a move that could put Cooper’s job in jeopardy.
A Sonoma County grand jury report released late Wednesday called Cooper an “unresponsive” leader and claimed she micromanages her staff, edits minutes of meetings to paint herself in a more favorable light and makes arbitrary decisions that have alienated her from the public and from city and county officials.
Cooper faced similar criticism Tuesday during a budget hearing, where she was grilled by county supervisors for more than an hour. It was the second time since March that supervisors had asked Cooper to appear before them to discuss library operations.
Cooper declined to comment Wednesday. She was hired as library director in 2005 and is paid a base salary of $150,820, plus an additional $39,829 in benefits.
Cooper formerly was North Carolina’s state librarian. In Sonoma County, she oversees 138 employees at 13 library branches and a budget of about $16 million.
Supervisors appear united in revisiting the joint powers agreement that was formed in 1975 and gives oversight of the library system to the city of Santa Rosa, the county and an independent library commission made up of seven volunteers.
The commission’s members are appointed by supervisors and city councils in Santa Rosa and Petaluma. It has the sole authority to hire and fire the library director, who reports directly to its members.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board’s chairwoman, said Wednesday that she supports revising the operating agreement to give supervisors authority over the library director’s position.
“That’s got to be a consideration given that we approve the budget, and given the fact constituents come to us when they have a problem,” she said.
Asked whether the board has confidence in Cooper’s ability to continue leading the library, Zane would say only that “we have great concerns.”
The grand jury report recommends that supervisors evaluate the library’s leadership structure and follow up on what it called Cooper’s “disuse” of the joint powers agreement. The nine-page report is titled “Whose Library Is It?”
The grand jury’s investigation appears to have been sparked in part by a complaint that Cooper was holding up the purchase of new equipment for the children’s section at the Guerneville library.
River Friends of the Library raised money to pay for the new equipment in 2009 and submitted a request for it to be ordered, according to Angie Orr, the group’s past president.
But two years later, after the equipment had yet to arrive, members of the group confronted Cooper.
“She said it was on her to-do list,” Orr said. “Of course, that led to an uproar.”
Orr said the group demanded a refund of the money. It was returned two weeks ago.
Cooper also faced criticism after she decided to close the Sebastopol library for three weeks in May and June while staff relocated from a temporary site back to the main branch, which had undergone renovations.
In the face of protests, Cooper had the library resume operations temporarily in a space at the main branch.
Branch manager Sue Struthers said she “concurred” with Cooper’s original decision to temporarily shut down the library because of the amount of work it required to keep it open on even a limited basis.
“There are lots of people who think everything they want can be done simply. It cannot,” Struthers said Wednesday.
The Sebastopol community will celebrate the formal reopening of the library branch Saturday.
The grand jury report cites concerns brought to Cooper by the public or her staff. It also found evidence that Cooper provided the library commission with “inaccurate, misleading or incomplete information,” including with regard to a $61,000 retrofit to book return bins.
Commissioner Helena Whistler, who was appointed by Supervisor Efren Carrillo, said Wednesday that “at times I have felt I have not gotten the information I’ve needed.”
But she said Cooper still appears to have the support of a majority of commissioners, who are in the process of evaluating the library director’s job performance.
“There definitely is a lot of room for improvement,” Whistler said.
Cooper previously came under fire in 2007 when she initially discounted concerns about the homeless using Santa Rosa’s main library as a de facto shelter. Only after pressure from the community and from the library commission did she relent and institute changes, which included hiring a security guard.
At Tuesday’s budget hearing, Supervisor Mike McGuire told Cooper that he felt the library system has been “operating like an island,” and that he wasn’t going “to sit here and beg you to work with us.”
Although the joint powers agreement gives Cooper the authority to make final decisions regarding the library, Supervisor Valerie Brown said the director should be doing more to foster communication with the board.
Brown said Wednesday that she was “surprised how united the board seems to be on this.”
“It’s not just one district. It’s not just one place. It’s everyone and that causes us to have some concern about her role,” she said.
Carrillo said he “absolutely” supports supervisors taking a look at the library’s leadership structure. He would not say whether he supports Cooper remaining in that role.
“I’m not going to comment on that right now,” he said.
The grand jury report paints the leadership structure of the library as dysfunctional, saying that library advisory boards comprised of community members meet irregularly and have been lax in making recommendations, and that the library commission has limited resources and ability to fact-check and supervise management.
“The result is a vacuum where there should be clear lines of authority and responsibility,” the report says.
The report states that Cooper edited minutes of library commission meetings for her own advantage, including after an Oct. 5 meeting in which a member of the Service Employees International Union presented a petition of no confidence in Cooper signed by 78 employees.
The draft minutes included the union representative’s list of Cooper’s alleged failings. The grand jury report said Cooper edited that to say the person read a statement giving “many examples” of the director “not being able to manage the operations and budget of the library.”
The grand jury report does not note that Cooper currently is in negotiations with SEIU for a new employee contract, and that the current contract expires Saturday.
Brown said at Tuesday’s hearing that she doesn’t want to “get in the middle” of those negotiations.
But Zane on Wednesday said criticism of Cooper amounts to more than just labor unrest.
“The complaints we’ve received at these offices have been from more than staff members. They’ve also come from library users,” she said.
You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or email@example.com.