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Library tension goes public

LAWRENCEVILLE - A conflict that pits the county library's executive director against members of its board has come to a head in public this week, with one board member accusing three others of colluding to fire the director.

In a closed meeting Tuesday, members of the Gwinnett County Public Library board met to conduct Executive Director Jo Ann Pinder's annual performance review, a move that board member Brett Taylor said was long overdue - her last review was November 2004.

But Taylor said the review never took place. Board members discussed it for 15 or 20 minutes, he said, without writing anything down, before the conversation turned to other issues. When board member Phyllis Oxendine said she had the votes to have Pinder fired, Taylor decided to take matters into his own hands. He circulated a letter lauding Pinder's leadership and accusing Oxendine of having a personal vendetta against the director.

"Oxendine said, 'We're going to fire her, and I've got the votes to do it,'" Taylor said. "It's the first I ever heard of something so drastic. They'd already decided her fate, and they have the power to do it."

Board members Dale Todd and Margaret Tiller, who was appointed last month after Chairman Dan English resigned, both told him they would be voting with Oxendine, Taylor said. Acting Chairman Lloyd Breck only votes in the case of a tie.

Oxendine, who was out of state, said in a message that she was ethically bound not to discuss personnel matters that occurred during a closed session. Todd similarly declined comment, saying she had no right to talk about what was said in the meeting.

"We were admonished by the chairman not to discuss publicly a personnel review," she said. "I know I wouldn't want that done to me. ... I like Brett, but I don't understand his motives."

Neither Breck nor Pinder returned messages left at their homes seeking comment. Tiller could not be reached by press time Saturday.

Taylor said in the letter that Pinder had earned a great deal of respect during her 15 years in charge of the county library system. If she is fired without cause, he wrote, it will cost the county her $127,000 salary.

English, who said one of the main reasons he left the board was to see if his departure would ease tensions between Pinder and other members, supported Taylor's decision to send the letter, which was addressed to his "fellow citizens of Gwinnett County." In the letter, Taylor urged residents to attend the library board's June 12 meeting dressed in red to show their disdain for a move to fire Pinder. He also included contact information for county commissioners and encouraged people to call or write to them with their concerns.

"I thought it was extremely appropriate and that he did the right thing," English said. "Brett's a very conservative type of person. I feel pretty confident that Brett used his judgment correctly."

Taylor said Pinder has had some problems since her last review - publicly, there was an outcry when the library board voted to dismantle its DVD collection at her urging, a decision which was later overturned, and some home-school parents complained to the board after a run-in with the director that resulted in her making a public apology - but that neither issue was a good enough reason for her to be fired.

Instead, Taylor said, the reasons board members want Pinder gone are personal and have to do with what they perceive as a lack of people skills.

If he saw problems with abuse or neglect, Taylor said, he would have no problem investigating Pinder and firing her if she was warned about problems and could not resolve them. But he maintained that Pinder had never received a reprimand for the situation with the home-school parents and had never been made aware of the fact that her job was on the line.

"We could have actually issued a reprimand, then we would have had something in the record," Taylor said. "She was not given due process."

Since he sent the letter, Taylor said he has gotten several e-mails and phone calls from people who have said they have nothing but the utmost respect for Pinder. He hopes that if enough people show up to the meeting, other members of the board will be intimidated into keeping the issue from a vote.

"I just don't know what to do," he said. "I thought maybe if I bring the issue to the public, they'll back down."

Oxendine also hopes to eliminate what she called top-heavy management, Taylor said, including not replacing a branch service manager who is retiring and eliminating the library's marketing department.

English, who said he will address the board at its meeting, said he would like members to think of Pinder's $127,000 salary as their own money before voting to fire her. If she does lose her job, he said, he would look at legal ways to hold the board financially responsible for their actions so county taxpayers would not have to bear the costs.

"I think it would be unconscionable for them to fire Jo Ann," he said. "If you have the best person in the U.S., you don't fire them because you don't like them."