“The public has raised some questions about what has happened, but it has not prevented people from coming. We are important in many communities and we are usually the last institution to leave the community.”
— JOANNE MONDOWNEY, Executive Director, Detroit Public Library
The Detroit Public Library is not only a Detroit institution rooted in the educational mission of the city, but also a jewel and a massive resource for many who look to the library to attend to their educational and research needs.
Children, students and adults all use the Detroit Public Library as a reservoir of knowledge for the exchange of information and ideas and a community asset that stands as a connecting pillar and a learning tool.
Often it is said that you can tell the educational commitment of a city by the kind of attention paid to the effective functioning of its public libraries and the set of eyes in charge of its management.
Because libraries are places where knowledge is built in grooming a community of learners and those who would contribute to society.
That is why news of the Detroit Public Library embroiled in allegations of financial mismanagement shocked most in the community because given its nature, it is the last place to expect scandals that are routine in government bureaucratic structures where “pay to play” is often the order of day.
Earlier this year, the library’s Main Branch on Woodward Avenue was raided by FBI agents in a corruption sweep that led to the firing of one of the top officials at the public library, Tim Cromer, who handled technology.
Cromer’s Bloomfield home was also raided by federal authorities following reports that he awarded a $3 million no-bid technology contract to an outside company.
Another company, Core, was contracted by Cromer to update the library’s technology infrastructure during which the cost of the work jumped to an unexplained $1.7 million from the initial $712,000. James Henley, the owner of Core, was indicted last month on bribery charges, that he allegedly paid $600,000 in kickbacks to an anonymous public official.
With the cloud of alleged financial mismanagement hanging over the Detroit Public Library like the Sword of Damocles, officials from the library, including Executive Director Jo Anne Mondowney and Library Commission President Russell Bellant, are on an aggressive mission to separate fact from fiction in an effort to maintain the institution’s reputation.
The case they are making is that the actions of one or few individuals who are still going to have their day in court should not be used to paint the library with a wide brush considering what it has meant in this community for decades.
“The memory is going to be there. We still have to deal with the fact that it happened. We can’t keep getting beat up for it because everybody wasn’t a part of it,” Mondowney said during an interview in my office last week, noting that there is still an ongoing investigation. “You would think the library would be (exempt) from that kind of behavior but we’re not.”
During the entire ordeal and the federal probe that made the library garner national attention, Mondowney said, “It was something I had to deal with and take responsibility for which I did. I tried to investigate and determine how to respond. And because I’m from Baltimore, I had the courage and strength to stand up to what was happening. I did not make excuses.”
Witnessing what was happening for Mondowney meant that it was time to not let the reputation of an institution of this stature go down the drain because “this is a fine institution that deserved to be exonerated and I was the person that could help with what was happening.”
Given where things are and the fact that the federal probe is still continuing, she said the leadership of the library will have to be more accountable because “people trust us with their money.”
Commissioner Bellant, who is also a union leader, said even though the library was hit with this scandal it should not be misconstrued as a failure of the entire leadership.
He cited as an example the Detroit Public Schools, where he said past allegations of mismanagement were far more rampant saying what happened at DPS is not equal to the allegations facing the library.
“When it happened we as a commission issued a statement that reflected the commission’s view that we will cooperate fully. But what happened at DPS was so systematic and widespread, and the library was one person. By comparison, the library had a clean bill of health,” Bellant said. “You can’t see services being undermined while people profit for themselves. We have a lot of young people using the library.”
“The public has raised some questions about what has happened but it has not prevented people from coming,” Mondowney said. “We are important in many communities and we are usually the last institution to leave the community.”
Even though the library is currently reviewing policies and instituting internal controls to avert what happened in its technology department that is still under investigation, Mondowney said, “Rules are as good as the folks who implement them and there are people who find a way to get around and do wrong. That’s why the law is there.”
The library’s role cannot be dismissed no matter what has happened, Mondowney said.
“The public has seen us as an institution that has tried to minimize the digital divide. We provide that role in a daily basis,” She said. “In our Main Library we have a literacy program and technology has made the library far more relevant. There is a need to stay connected. We have people accessing our computers every single day.”
Mondowney, who has been on the job now since 2009 as director, said her vision is weaved into the library’s mission.
“We find hope for people. We create an environment of lifelong learning. We know as technology evolves libraries are still needed to help people maintain a quality of life in this society,” Mondowney said.
The challenge now is about revenue and how the library continues to provide services that are beyond the wrongdoing that has been reported.
“It is not going to derail us from looking hard at the central question,” Mondowney said. “We provide very creative summer reading programs that help children maintain a reading level that allows them to excel. You accomplish something when you help a child to love to read. The library tries to teach a child to love to do this and our programs are centered around keeping children excited and engaged in the love of reading.”
In the coming months and years, the library’s leadership will continue to face the questions in the financial scandal, but the challenge remains on its ability to show in concrete terms what it is doing to prevent misdeeds of some on its staff, the kind that can lead to deplorable and embarassing sitiuations such as this one. These questions and any improvement to its operating standard as it relates to guarding tax dollars takes on a more central role as the library works to renew its existing millage which will expire in 2015.
Public libraries are important because they contribute not only to our democracy, but also to education and the lifelong learning that those who spend hours in the library researching information benefit from.
Bankole Thompson is editor of the Michigan Chronicle and the author of the forthcoming book “Rising From the Ashes: Engaging Detroit’s Future With Courage.” His book “Obama and Black Loyalty,” published in 2010, follows his recent book, “Obama and Christian Loyalty” with an epilogue by Bob Weiner, former White House spokesman. Thompson is a political news analyst at WDET-101.9FM (NPR affiliate) and a member of the weekly “Obama Watch” Sunday evening roundtable on WLIB-1190AM New York and simulcast in New Jersey and Connecticut. E-mail email@example.com or visit his personal page at http://www.bankolethompson.com.