Friday, September 15, 2017 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews
Featured image: Bellwood Public Library Executive Director Jacqueline Spratt reads a statement to board members at a regular meeting in July. | File
After several months of stasis, the Bellwood Public Library Board of Trustees has a newly configured majority. During a Sept. 12 regular meeting, the board appointed two new members and voted in officers — roughly five months after the April 4 elections.
Dorothy Clark-Smith, Deborah Giles and Connie Riales — all of whom ran on the Bellwood Dream Team Party slate in April — were elected the library board’s president, vice president and secretary, respectively.
The board also appointed two new members — Rev. Michael Horton, a former library board member, and Gloria Ward — who round out a five-person majority that will replace a board majority helmed by former board president Mary Clements.
When Clements and board member Janice English showed up to the Sept. 12 meeting, Clark-Smith, Giles and Riales said they were all caught off guard. That meeting had been the first regular meeting since February where the board had enough members to make binding decisions, such as voting in new officers.
Several times in the past, residents said, Clements and her three allies on the board —English, Sharon Tharpe and Gwendolyn Reese — had been no-shows at regular meetings and even at special meetings they themselves called when it became clear that Giles and Clark-Smith, both of whom also serve on the Bellwood District 88 school board and sometimes have conflicting schedules, would show up anyway.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the library board elected to replace Tharpe and Reese with Horton and Ward. Tharpe’s seat on the board had been shrouded in controversy when it became apparent that she had been convicted of a felony. Some residents had also questioned Tharpe’s Bellwood residency, which had come into question after documents surfaced indicating that she lives in Chicago.
In an interview on Friday, Clark-Smith said that, although Tharpe had been replaced, they’re currently working the legal system to try to solidify her removal. According to state statutes, individuals with felony records are prohibited from holding elected office.
Reese’s board members had been under review by the State’s Attorney’s office after she was appointed during a special meeting on March 3.
Video that was taken by residents of that March meeting shows Clements, former board member Regina Greene and Tharpe voting to accept the resignation of former board member J.B. Carr. After which, all four board members, including Carr — who had just tended her resignation — voted to appoint Reese to the seat Carr had just vacated. The move was widely criticized by community members, including Jacqueline Spratt, the library’s executive director, who questioned its legality.
The recent board configuration comes less than two months after the former board majority voted to place Spratt on administrative leave and to rescind a board policy that authorized Spratt to “fill current staff vacancies, as well as future position [sic] as long as the Board is notified of the open position by email or at a meeting.”
The policy change would have drastically altered the process by which employment decisions are made, placing the power to hire and fire in the hands of Clements and her three board allies — who many residents believe were controlled by Maywood businessman Chuck Baxter.
The Maywood resident has been described by the Edgar County Watchdogs, a public advocacy group, as a “mystery man” engaged in a “scheme involving kickbacks of some kind to plunder” the library, “using the board members he controls to achieve this.”
On Sept. 15, Clark-Smith said that the first thing she and her board allies plan to do is revamp the library board’s bylaws.
“We’re going to try to do an administrative policy manual where we combine the library and board policies,” she said. “The attorney said it’s best to put it all in one book. That’s important because the community has been asking to see our bylaws updated for that for about two years now.”
Clark-Smith also praised community members who fought for a change of leadership on the library board.
“The community was always supporting us,” she said. “They never stopped continuing to support the board.” VFP