On the Ballot

N.O. Library Director spread ‘misinformation … and lies,’ board secretary says

By David Hammer

Source: WWL-TV

NEW ORLEANS — A member of the New Orleans Public Library Board of Directors blasted the city’s library director at a board meeting Tuesday, accusing him of “spreading misinformation … and basically lies” about Proposition 2, Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s failed attempt in December to cut library funding by 40 percent.

Andrea Neighbours, the Public Library Board secretary, was the only board member to speak out publicly against Prop 2 before it failed Dec. 5 by a margin of 57 percent to 43 percent. In the days before the election, she said the Cantrell administration was misleading voters with information posted on the city library website.

Then, on the day before the election, several community groups complained they were being listed as supporters of Proposition 2 without their knowledge and asked their names to be removed from campaign materials put out by a campaign PAC called Yes for Children’s Success.

Campaign mailers sent by Yes for Children’s Success to all voters in the city falsely claimed the New Orleans Public Library had backed Proposition 2, even though the board had actually voted to keep the millage as-is. The mailers also quoted from a Bureau of Governmental Research report to make it look like BGR was supporting Prop 2, even though the nonprofit government watchdog actually opposed the proposition.

Yes for Children’s Success is a political action committee that was set up by early childhood education advocates to back Prop 2. Cantrell’s proposal would have shifted $1.5 million a year in tax revenues for the next 20 years from libraries to early childhood education programs.

While that PAC operated separately from Cantrell and the city, the city’s website also laid out the benefits of Prop 2 with no mention that a vote for Prop 2 would result in a 40 percent cut to the library budget. It only said a vote for Prop 2 would ensure the library could “continue fulfilling its mission of transforming lives, enriching neighborhoods, and preserving history by offering safe and welcoming spaces and providing free, educational, informational, and recreational resources, programs, and activities for all ages.”

At the same time, the city website warned that if the proposition failed the library would suffer “a 50% funding cut resulting in the possibility of reduced locations, operating hours, and significantly decreased collections, programs, and technology budgets.”

In truth, the only way the library would lose 50 percent of its tax revenues is if the current tax millage isn’t renewed by the end of 2021.

Neighbours confronted Library Director Gabriel Morley about his role in promoting those ideas leading up to the election.

“It’s just deeply disturbing that when our citizens look to the library for facts and truth, our director blasted out misinformation,” Neighbours said. “There’s also some trust issues with staff and some healing that has to happen.

Dozens of members of the public joined the virtual board meeting via Zoom, starting the meeting with a slew of comments praising Neighbours and criticizing Morley and the rest of the board.

Board Chair Phala Kimbrough Mire tried to defend Morley, essentially saying he had been placed in an impossible situation by the Cantrell administration, which didn’t propose the library cuts publicly until late summer, just three months before the election.

Morley’s initial response to the plan in September was to acknowledge it would have a significant impact on library services, but he later changed his tune, joining Cantrell administration officials at press conferences to say that creative budgeting and efficiencies would preserve those services.

“Understanding the messaging coming from the Mayor’s Office, (Morley) spent time creating budgets he didn’t need to, that didn’t exist,” Mire said.

Morley did not respond to Neighbours after Mire jumped in to defend him. Mire also tried to strike a conciliatory tone by promising to include the Save Our Libraries group in an effort to renew the existing library taxes that expire at the end of 2021.

“The voters have spoken, it was quite clear, it was resounding,” Mire said. “Just looking at public comments here, there’s a lot of support for keeping the library at full funding. Our intention is to move forward with putting ourselves back on the ballot at the full funding level.”

That would require another tax proposal for voters to approve or reject, likely in October or November.

Mire replaced Neighbours as the chair of the board’s Strategic Planning Committee, and Neighbours said at a public meeting last week that she viewed her removal as retaliatory.

But at Tuesday’s meeting, Mire firmly backed a renewal of the current library taxes and asked the opponents of Prop 2 to give the Library Board a chance to do it right this time.

“If people can leave from this call with some greater sense of confidence,” she appealed. “I’m not expecting anyone to change their mind overnight, but I hope you can conclude that this is going to be an inclusive process and… unlike the last one, driven by the Library Board.”

The board hired Michelle Thomas as a consultant for the library’s strategic plan and millage renewal campaign. Thomas introduced herself by talking about her previous consulting work with other public entities in New Orleans.

She didn’t mention that she also served as the city’s deputy mayor for operations under former Mayor Mitch Landrieu from 2011 to 2013. She abruptly resigned in 2013, a day after WWL-TV reported that she was engaged to marry a man facing state gun and drug charges.

NOTE: This story was updated Jan. 21, 2021, to include details about the Yes for Children’s Success PAC and to clarify that Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s campaign and PAC did not put out the mailers or disputed supporters list.

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