- IN THE TOWNS
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Two-hour closed session early on angers many in the audience, including City Council members
By: Chris Sykes - Staff Writer
ORANGE — The meeting of the Orange Public Library Board of Trustees on Thursday, Jan. 10, was a battle of wills for the nearly 30 people that packed into the library’s ground floor meeting room to witness and participate in the meeting.
The members of that audience said they were not amused by the fact that the first thing the board did after the meeting began at 7 p.m. was to go into closed session for two hours. And, to add insult to injury, after announcing the board would be going into a private session immediately after she convened the meeting, Imani Banks, the board’s president, asked the audience to leave the meeting room so the board could have some privacy for their meeting within the meeting.
Needless to say, this did not sit well with any of the members of the audience who said they had come to the meeting specifically to discover firsthand what was happening at the institution, after having heard so much rumor and innuendo that had been circulating in Orange in recent weeks. Nevertheless, they might have been forced to comply with Banks’ announcement, if it had not been for Bruce Meyer.
“May I suggest that the board go into another room, as opposed to asking the crowd to leave the room,” Meyer said. “It seems like that would make more sense.”
After all, Meyer said, there were only eight board members and it would be easier for them to go someplace else to have their closed session meeting, as opposed to asking 30 or more concerned citizens, residents and taxpayers to leave a public meeting that was taking place in the public space allotted for it.
Apparently, Meyer’s suggestion made more sense to the majority of the board members, including newcomer Hakeem Taliaferro, who had just been appointed by Mayor Dwayne Warren to replace former board member Karen Wells. Wells had resigned sometime before the end of last year, prior to the first meeting of the New Year on Thursday, Jan. 10. So, the board left the room and had its two-hour closed session somewhere else in the library building.
But that didn’t mean the board’s decision sat well with the audience at the Jan. 10 meeting.
“This is somewhat ridiculous, because a blind man could see what was going on here,” said Dave Jones, a relative newcomer to the city who said he has nevertheless been using the library on a regular basis, since he moved to Orange one year ago. “This hidden agenda is not working for anybody and I think it was strategic that they had this caucus for this reorganization meeting.”
Jones waited for an hour and 20 minutes for the board to return. When that did not happen, Jones and several other members of the audience got up and left because they said they could not wait any longer. But he and the others said they left with a lot of hard feelings toward the board.
“They were having a meeting to have a meeting so that they could have their way,” Jones said. “Something is going on internally on this board that has to be straightened out as soon as possible. It’s like a sickness. I think something’s got to be done as soon as possible, because with this money that the state has for this library, we should not neglect our responsibility and let the state take this money back and not fix this building up. This is a historical building. It needs it, we deserve it and I think that everybody involved, even the mayor, needs to come to the table and be candid about what’s really going on.”
At Large Councilman Elroy Corbitt was one of the five current City Council members, including Council President Tency Eason, West Ward Councilman Hassan Abdul-Rasheed, South Ward Councilman Edward Marable and At Large Councilwoman Donna K. Williams, that attended the library board’s meeting on Jan. 10. He said, even though the council is notorious for having meetings that run for hours on end, they have never done anything as deliberately dismissive of the public and the people’s legitimate concerns such as going into a private session right at the start of one of their meetings and asking the audience to leave the Council Chamber inside City Hall to facilitate it.
“I’m just not happy because we sat out here for two hours waiting for them to start their meeting,” Corbitt said on Thursday, Jan. 10. “They were in a closed session for two long hours and I think that they did not consider the public at all. As a council person, we often go into closed session, but during the length of time that I’ve been on the council, I don’t recall us going into a closed session in-between a meeting or before a meeting and having the people wait for two hours. We do some unorthodox things on the council, but that’s not one of them.”
Maria Van der Meer said she was also a former City Council member, in particular at a time when that body did not have the same reputation for running long meetings the way that the current council has become notorious for doing. And she didn’t like what happened at the library board’s Jan. 10 meeting either.
“I think they could have gone into closed session after the public meeting was over,” Van der Meer said. “Have your meeting and then conduct your business first. It wasn’t good parliamentary procedure. We never did that. As a resident, I took offense to sitting here waiting two hours for them.”
Corbitt said he was not present at the start of the board meeting, when Banks and the rest decided to go into a closed session. He said that, when he arrived, there were some “folks” outside and that’s how he found out the board was in a closed session. And then, Corbitt said, another council person, Eason, walked up and he and the others who were waiting outside explained to her they were outside the meeting room on Essex Avenue because the board had decided to go into a closed session.
“Tency said: ‘Why are we standing outside in the cold; why don’t we go inside,’ ” Corbitt said. “That wasn’t good either — asking the people to go outside.”
Both Van der Meer and Corbitt said, aside from the insult of being forced to wait two hours for the Jan. 10 board meeting to begin, the real problem they had with the meeting was that, once it began at 9 p.m., the board didn’t answer any of the questions they and the other members of the public had gone to the meeting to ask in the first place.
“I just thought that I would come to the meeting because I had heard some interesting things and I wanted to see what happened,” Van der Meer said on Jan. 10. “I didn’t get any good answers. I would like to see future board meetings run better by following Roberts Rules.”
Corbitt said he plans to attend the next library board meeting, scheduled to take place on Thursday, Feb. 14. And he said he hopes the next one will be organized and run better than the one on Jan. 10, because he expects there to be another big public turnout for that meeting as well.
“The citizens of Orange have a lot of tenacity in them, so it wouldn’t surprise me that folks will come back out in February to see what happens,” Corbitt said. “I want to see the library do well and I certainly want to come to the next few meetings to see what’s going on. I want to see what’s going on with their reorganization meeting that was pushed back to the Feb. 14 meeting.
“That’s really why I came out that night on Jan. 10, other than the fact that there has been so much controversy surrounding the library. I wanted to see who the new leadership was going to be, but that didn’t take place at the Jan. 10 meeting. I’m sure they had a discussion in their closed session to come out and be a united front and do what they needed to do that night.
“There has been a lot of public discussion surrounding the library, in particular with our director, Dawn Jenkin, stepping down, and I wanted to find out exactly what was going on here: whether her resignation was accepted; whether it was going to be accepted; and I don’t think that I heard any of that on that night.”