The Great Neck Library Board of Trustees appointed Jenni Lurman to fill the vacancy on the board left by former Trustee Chelsea Sassouni on Tuesday night, a motion met with strong opposition from the 70 members of the public present at the virtual meeting.
Board officials said two names were initially submitted by the Nominating Committee after Sassouni’s resignation became effective on Sept. 14. One of the names that was submitted by the committee, officials said, was a “very divisive” and “anti-Iranian” individual who could potentially damage the library’s reputation if “even considered” by the board to fill the vacancy. The individual was not identified.
Village of Great Neck resident Rebecca Rosenblatt Gilliar received an email from the “divisive” person whom the committee recommended to the board. Gilliar said she was pleased with the board’s decision not to move forward with the recommendation.
“Without a doubt the Library trustees acted responsibly when they rejected the Nominating Committee’s recommendations,” Gilliar said in a statement. “The person whom the Committee recommended to the Board to be seated as a Library Trustee wrote to me in an e-mail a few weeks ago, ‘..you should be burned at the stake in front of village hall.’ Trustee Gold described this candidate in deeply negative terms at the Library Board meeting on December 21.”
Trustee Mimi Hu said the board has reverted to abiding by New York state law, which supersedes the bylaws, due to the Nominating Committee’s recommendation of the “divisive” candidate, which, Hu claimed, was a violation of the bylaws.
“The trustees took recourse to New York state law when the bylaw was silent on what to do when the Nominating Committee acted against the Library’s interests and did not fulfill on their only job,” Gilliar said.
Board President Weihua Yan said the board expressed its concerns about the nomination to the committee twice and was told by committee officials that the board should interview each of the people whose names were presented. Yan said the board told the committee that if nothing else was submitted before the 60-day deadline after Sassouni’s resignation, outlined in the library bylaws, the board would conduct continue the search on its own.
Yan said the board opened its own interview process on Nov. 29, which lasted until Dec. 3. On Dec. 2, he said, the board received another name from the committee, a person that also applied for the position through the board’s process.
Yan said five members of the board were present when 14 interviews with “qualified candidates very objectively” occurred on Dec. 13, 15 and 17. Ultimately, he said, board members were pleased with their nomination of Lurman to fill the vacancy on the board for the remainder of Sassouni’s term for the next year, which would expire at the library’s annual meeting in January 2023.
“We interviewed very diverse candidates and we are very happy to nominate someone who we think will represent the community and be a great asset to the board,” Yan said.
Marietta DiCamillo, the chair of the Nominating Committee, said the board submitted the names of two candidates “well before” the 60-day deadline with one remaining in consideration and another one withdrawing after winning an October election. DiCamillo said the committee then provided a replacement name for the candidate that withdrew.
DiCamillo said the committee was then advised by the board that either “both or one” of the names submitted were “completely unacceptable” and asked the board to clarify the criteria used to make that determination and when the candidates were interviewed. The board, according to DiCamillo, never answered those questions and did not respond to her requesting a legal opinion through the board’s attorney, which was also reportedly not given.
The committee, DiCamillo said, submitted a fourth name to the board. DiCamillo said the committee has abided by the library bylaws throughout the process.
“The board is deciding to do what they will against the public’s will, but the committee has adhered to the bylaws which have been in existence since as long as I can recall,” she said.
Last week, the board received a letter from Brian Stolar of the Meyer Suozzi law firm on behalf of library association members advising the board to cease efforts to fill the vacancy.
Stolar, in the letter, claimed the board was not adhering to library bylaws in filling the seat.
“Rather than abide by the Bylaws, the Board has demonstrated through its interview process involving members not on the Nominating Committee’s list, that it plans to violate its Bylaws and select a person of the Board’s own choosing.” Stolar said.
Efforts to reach Stolar or the board’s legal representation, Bee Ready Fishbein Hatter & Donovan LLP, for further comment were unavailing.
Trustee Barry Smith attempted to make a motion to table Lurman’s appointment, but no other board member seconded it. Smith cited the importance of the Nominating Committee to the library and said the board’s attempt to bypass the bylaws comes with great risk.
“The Nominating Committee is an integral part of the organization for vetting and working together with the board to fill board vacancies,” Smith said. “I think circumventing that process risks this association not fulfilling its fiduciary obligation and also goes against the populace vote.”
Yan said the board is not attempting to bypass the committee and is not violating the bylaws by appointing Lurman to the board.
“We are certainly not trying to circumvent the Nominee Committee or what’s in the bylaws,” he said. “We simply asked the Nominating Committee to consider the reputation of the library and they failed to do that.”
Members of the public began to express their displeasure with the board, claiming its actions were going against the bylaws and trying to go against the Nominating Committee. A proposed measure to eliminate the committee fell short during the October election.
“Optically, this looks like you guys are just trying to bypass the vote,” one person said. “We specifically voted to keep the Nominating Committee there and you’re just going right over our vote.”
“Listen to what we’re telling you, you’re doing something wrong and acting in bad faith while you’re doing it is not right,” another said.
After pleas from residents to postpone the appointment until a future meeting, the board approved the appointment, 5-1, with Smith being the only member in opposition. Members of the public became more verbose and began to sharply criticize board members, claiming they did not act in the public’s best interest.
“We will be sure to remember this next time there is an election,” one person said. “We’re going to take legal action against this. This is a clear violation of your own bylaws.”
“You guys are like a monarchy or queen trying to pass this without considering people’s request,” Joseph Esrali said.
“We need this process of filling this vacancy to be done properly and with full disclosure and transparency,” someone else said. “This was very inappropriate. Your lawyers told you not to do it and you still went ahead with it.”
The public and board members began to engage in heated discourse, with constant interruptions when attempts were made to ask questions and give answers. Members of the public claimed Yan was “talking in circles” and dancing around questions presented to him.
In the Zoom chat, members of the public began to argue with each other on myriad issues ranging from alleged racist comments to politics. Continued threats of voting out board members were also made toward the end of the meeting.
Trustee Kathy Gold said the public accusations against the board made her feel uncomfortable and reiterated that each trustee is taking time to help better the community.
“It feels like everyone’s coming from a place of distrust to report and it makes me really uncomfortable because everyone who serves on the board is doing it out of their passion for community service and they’re here because they got your votes,” she said.
One resident said the mistrust stems from the impression that Hu, not Yan, is “running the entire board.”
Yan ended up removing one member of the public for not “respecting” the public meeting guidelines, which stirred another frenzy throughout the public. Others present attempted to ask Yan a question on behalf of the removed person, but constant interruptions and heated exchanges prevented that from occurring.
Smith made a motion to adjourn the meeting after two hours of discourse, saying that this matter is far from finished and will be revisited.
“Listen everyone, I am on your side and respect all your comments, but at some point we have to adjourn the meeting,” Smith said. “Believe me, this is not done. Believe me.”
Despite the heated exchanges during the meeting, Hu said in a phone interview, she was pleased to see people present and have a desire to be informed of what is happening at the library.
“I still want people to show up and participate in the meetings and I think, at the end of the day, we want the library to thrive and we also want to show the rest of the world we respect each other,” Hu said. “This is a community where people want to move to. I am confident in this new trustee we have appointed and I am extremely happy she will be joining us.”