Once Allies, Bellwood Library Board Members Now At Odds Over Policy Differences

Tuesday, September 3, 2019 || By Igor Studenkov || @maywoodnews

Two years ago, Dorothy Clark-Smith and Deborah Giles were the underdogs on the Bellwood Library Board of Trustees. The majority of the board members led by then-board president Mary Clements seemed determined to try to exclude them from meetings while making a series of controversial decisions — including having board member J.B. Carr vote for her own replacement after she officially resigned.

Clark-Smith, Giles and Connie Riales ran on the Bellwood Dream Team Party slate and won, forming the core of the new library board majority that was installed in September 2017. At the time, it was heralded as a new chapter in the library board’s history. But Giles contends that since then, the relations between the allies have soured to the point where she is considering legal action.

In June, the board adopted a policy regarding the use of recording equipment at public meetings, restricting where video cameras and other recording equipment may be placed, and specifying that, when the board goes into closed session, the camera or a phone has to be physically removed from the room. Giles contends that the policy was specifically made to make it harder for her to record meetings, a charge that Clark Smith denied.

Giles also alleged, without giving any specifics, that other trustees were using their position to take advantage of library resources for personal reasons. While Clark Smith didn’t respond to requests for comment on that particular point, Amy Crump, the library’s current executive director, said that trustees shouldn’t use the library equipment unless it pertains to board-related business and emphasized that, as far as she knows, none of the trustees used the library resources for personal reasons.

According to a Frequently Asked Questions document put together by the Office of Illinois Attorney General, “any member of the public can record a meeting by tape, film, or other means, subject to some reasonable restrictions.” It doesn’t specify what counts as “reasonable restrictions.”

Bellwood library’s new Right to Record Open Meetings policy specifies that members of the public “shall take reasonable steps to ensure that the recording activity does not disrupt or interfere with the meeting, impair the ability of meeting participants or members of the public from viewing or hearing the meeting or impede public safety.”

Specifically, tripods, cameras and recording devices in general “may not block any aisle, entrance or exit to or from the meeting room” and at no time can they can’t be placed behind the board table. 

If a person is recording a meeting with the help of a tripod or a stand while the board transitions from a regular meeting to a closed session, she doesn’t have to remove the stand, but she does have to turn off and remove the recording device, and leave the room, according to the policy.

The policy also states that if a witness refuses to testify while she is being recorded, a library board has the right to ask the public to turn the recording equipment off for the duration of the testimony.

Giles said she has been recording meetings since 2015. Originally, she live-streamed the meetings on her phone so that the public would know for sure that she didn’t edit the footage in any way, she said. But after the live-streamed videos began to be interrupted by connection issues, Giles said, she started using a camcorder.

Giles claims she had several arguments with Clark Smith over whether she could record video, but added that she has no problem with most parts of the policy.

“The thing is, though, the law says that you can put reasonable, the key word is reasonable, limitations on the camera,” Giles said. “And reasonable would be that you can’t block the aisle or you can’t impede or block people coming to the meeting.”

Giles’ one sticking point was the part where the camera has to be removed from the tripod during closed sessions.

‘The library board knows they can’t get rid of the camera, but they want to make it as difficult as possible,” she said. “They want me to take it off of the tripod — not just to turn it off, but take it off the tripod and bring it do my desk. Now, that is unreasonable to me. What’s the purpose of this? Why can’t you just turn the camera off?”

Clark-Smith insisted that the new policy wasn’t a response to anything in particular.

“We just decided to adopt it,” she said.

 Giles said she got pushback for opposing Clark-Smith’s agenda.

“Our president has the votes, the rest of the board would back her; it doesn’t matter what it is,” Giles said. “If I said the sky is blue and the president said the sky is green, they’ll go with green. I have never done anything to harm the library — ever. I have worked with the director before that, as part of Friends of the Library. And yet, the way I’m treated is that I’m the enemy of the library. And that’s just not so. I’m a check on power and I will always be that.”

Giles also alleged that other trustees have used their positions to get library staffers to do tasks for them like making copies of materials. Giles also claimed that the board is not fiscally responsible, but declined to give specifics. She said that she is considering legal action, so she wanted to use her words carefully.

Crump said that, normally, the trustees don’t have any privileges when it comes to using library services and equipment unless it has something to do with board-related business. For example, if they want to make copies for personal use, trustees wouldn’t be treated any differently than any other patrons, but “if the copies pertain to a board meeting, then the rules for patrons do not apply.

“Let me be clear,” Crump said, “I have not witnessed any Bellwood Public Library trustee expecting to be treated any different than patrons.” VFP

Contact: thevillagefreepress@gmail.com | Facebook: @maywoodnews

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