Krista Huling raised her hand at the Cambridge Town Meeting in 2020 after the selectboard voted to provide the Varnum Memorial Library with less money than it requested. She wanted to know why town officials weren’t funding the library.
A year later, Huling, a justice of the peace who also sits on the town’s board of civil authority, was appointed to the library’s board of directors after all but one of the members resigned.
In March, she was appointed interim-president of the Crescendo Club, the non-profit that oversees the library’s operations.
She has now come to learn much more about why the town was nervous about handing money over to the library, she said, and is now suddenly presiding over one of the largest crises in the organization’s 123-year history.
The Crescendo Club was started by a group of pioneering women in the Cambridge area in 1898 with the explicit goal of creating a town library. After years of lending books out of residential homes, the group finally succeeded in building a library structure in the late 1930s and named it after a generous donor, Mrs. Harvey Varnum.
The board of directors works with the Crescendo Club to oversee library operations and is composed of elected members overseeing the use of the public money, apportioned from the selectboard, that supports the library along with grant money and donor contributions.
As Huling saw it, the Varnum, despite its legacy in the community, had fallen into disarray.
In interviews with the directors that preceded her, she discovered they had all quit rather than face the daunting job of addressing the library’s many issues, she said.
The building was in need of a great deal of structural repair. Payroll documents were not being handled properly. Electronic and hard-copy records were missing. Bylaws meant to regulate the functioning of the library were being ignored.
The public that had supported the library for over a century was being neglected as well. The once-vibrant Crescendo Club had collapsed, according to Huling, counting only three active members when she took her position on its board of directors. Regular donors had stopped giving. While other area libraries handled growing demand for borrowing books during the pandemic, the Varnum had seen a pre-pandemic rate of 1,000 adult books borrowed per month drop to just 70, according to Huling.
Along with the new directors, her campaign to right the Varnum ship put them in direct conflict with longtime employees at the library.
Within two months of the new board’s installment, the library director, the youth librarian and a volunteer had all quit.
A librarian and library clerk are all that remain.
Checks and balances
Despite rumors to the contrary, Huling is adamant that these employees were never asked to step down or put in any kind of untenable situation that would prohibit them from doing their jobs. She also said that state law prohibited her from discussing library employment matters at all.
However, in a subsequent discussion around different changes the directors had made since her appointment as interim president, it became clear that certain policy changes disrupted the former employees’ preferred ways of functioning.
The tighter regulation on payroll functions installed by the new board brought changes for the former director, Christy Liddy. Tighter guardrails were placed on the public money that paid the library employees.
According to Huling, paychecks had previously been sent directly to an accountant who also happened to be the library’s treasurer and were not monitored to ensure they matched the library budget.
A donation button on the library’s website was directly linked to Liddy’s personal PayPal account and then moved around from there, Huling claimed, and Liddy had also been the only person with access to the library’s website.
“You can’t have money that’s being donated to a public organization that gets put into somebody else’s financial account. It was messy things like that,” Huling said. “You had a treasurer, who was also the accountant. You can’t have those overlaps. You need to make sure that there’s breathing room. I wouldn’t say it was mismanagement, I would say it was carelessness.”
The board’s audit also discovered that Varnum money was funding the library’s former youth services librarian, Cari Varner, in work providing children’s programming in Morrisville, something Huling and the board found inappropriate and immediately stopped.
The staff resignations have fed the flames of an ongoing community outcry on social media platforms.
On May 7, the library board released a statement in response to what Huling referred to repeatedly as “misinformation” that outlined the problems that had been uncovered by the board and its response. The Cambridge Selectboard released its own statement expressing unequivocal support for the board of directors as well.
“This has been an emotionally-charged process for both the board and the Varnum Library staff, especially within the context of the challenges posed by an ongoing pandemic,” the board of directors’ statement said. “There have been several public statements made by staff and community members who frankly do not know all of the details of what has transpired.”
Liddy and Varner both declined an interview request and instead provided a joint statement on their departure.
They claimed the board of directors had proposed abolishing the library director and youth services director position, contradicting Huling’s claims.
Though Huling said one of the biggest pieces of misinformation she had seen was that the director had been forced to resign, she also said the library was not looking to replace the director and noted that the position was a historically recent part of the library’s organizational structure.
The statement from Liddy and Varner also protested the “institution of a top-down, bureaucratic approach to management” as opposed to the library’s formerly loose and creative functioning, called out an alleged belittlement of the efforts by past staff and board member’s attempts to manage the library, accused the board of ignoring emails from the staff over concerns about board member behavior and decried the “continued erosion of the creative influence and energy of the trained and experienced librarians.”
While waiting for the uproar around the departed staff to die down, Huling and the Varnum Library’s board of directors are looking forward.
Along with addressing organizational disarray, the group has reached out to donors and is attempting to reinvigorate the Crescendo Club, which Huling said has now grown to 20 members. They’ve upgraded internet service at the library and are trying to build a communication plan to avoid public information issues in the future. Donor and grant money is paying for needed repairs to the library building.
“We’re really trying to get as many people as possible involved in the library, because we heard loud and clear from the former board members that it became so much more difficult when everybody left and there was nothing in place. So that’s what we’re trying to do is reinvigorate the library,” Huling said.
Though not interested in replacing the library director at the moment, the Varnum is currently looking to bring on a new librarian.
A personal matter
Fiona Genadio-Allen has had a relationship with the Varnum Library for 25 years; her mother, Patty Genadio, is the library clerk.
When she learned about the clash between the new board of directors and library employees, she became an outspoken voice in the community on the matter.
“Since the new board of directors formed just two months ago, the Varnum (and thus our community) has suffered three devastating and needless losses,” Genadio-Allen wrote on social media. “Following the forced resignation of our exceptionally qualified and well-loved director whose service Cambridge has been blessed by for six years, the board dissolved her position entirely and chose to assume directorship themselves.”
The forum post, in which Genadio-Allen described her mother as “heartbroken” to see her colleagues pushed out, castigated the board and called upon them to humbly re-examine the actions that led to the former employees leaving the library.
The post was provocative enough to cause the moderators of Front Porch Forum to censor it until Patty Genadio approved its publication.
Though Patty Genadio declined to comment for this article, she said in her own forum post that she supported her daughter’s right to express herself as a voter and an adult in the community.
Despite statements from the board and the selectboard defending their actions, Genadio-Allen is still skeptical of the changes occurring at the library.
“While I earnestly do appreciate the work of the board that they have done regarding fire safety and publicizing programs, the dissolution of a position of directorship presents, in my opinion, an inappropriate consolidation of power and the subsequent resignations, eliminate imbalances in the management that I think need to be addressed,” she said.
The ideal outcome for her would be a reconciliation between the parties and even reinstatement of the former employees.
Barring that, Genadio-Allen would like to see at least a better commitment to transparency and accountability on the board’s part. Huling has expressed interest in promoting transparency as well and said she welcomed more public involvement with the library.
Genadio-Allen said she may even join the Crescendo Club.
“I do genuinely think that we all want the same thing, to preserve this beacon of light with the most integrity possible. I think a lot of people feel strongly about supporting the librarians. I think the goal is not divided on all sides,” she said.