the jack of all trades

First, Irvin Mayfield magically transforms from musician to librarian, becoming the chairman of the board of the New Orleans Public Library system just because he has a personal interest in the library system and not necessarily the academic credentials to operate a library system. And now he is on a short list to become the operating manager of the Municipal Auditorium?

I don’t get it – everyone gives him accolades aplenty, but if one reads between the lines all one sees is a power-tripper who’s only qualification is he’s personally connected to C. Ray Nagin.

As Mayor Ray Nagin on Monday proudly unveiled a proposal to transform the shuttered Municipal Auditorium into a cutting-edge performance and production complex showcasing the music of New Orleans, there was no reaction to the ambitious plan from City Council members, who must sign off on the deal.

It was unclear whether the council was silent because members spent the day reviewing the mayor’s proposed 2010 operating budget, or whether they were simply still grappling with the complexity of the $80 million auditorium makeover Nagin envisions.

While all seven council members gathered at City Hall for their initial hearing on the spending plan, in which they must make up a $68 million shortfall, Nagin held a news conference about a mile away where he described the vision for the city-owned auditorium as an “incredible concept.” Welcomed by a brass brand, the mayor said the iconic structure in Louis Armstrong Park, swamped by Hurricane Katrina, has languished long enough.

Asked if it is realistic to get the issue before the council by January, as the developers hope, Nagin said, “anything’s feasible.” “You know, it’s just a matter of will,” he said, as he announced that he had selected developer Stewart Juneau, the lone bidder, to head up the proposed redevelopment. “We need to get this going. The building is just sitting and the longer it sits, the more issues that arise there.”

Juneau, who has teamed with another staunch Nagin supporter, musician Irvin Mayfield, is seeking a 50-year lease from City Hall, which would require a vote of the council. No council members attended the announcement, which took place at Dooky Chase’s restaurant. Council members could not be reached for comment later.

Nagin, who will leave office in May, said he has not spoken “specifically” with council members about the project, but said they are “aware of the concept,” which he outlined in his final State of the City address in May.

It’s worth remembering that a lack of council support scuttled another high-profile initiative Nagin announced in that speech — a plan to purchase the downtown Chevron complex as a new home for City Hall. That deal failed on a 4-3 vote after council members opposed to the idea said neither they nor members of the public had been sufficiently briefed on the plan or had a chance to offer meaningful input.

Juneau’s auditorium plan calls for the revamped facility to combine traditional stages with digital production facilities, a merchandise distribution center, a culinary school, a jazz museum and offices for nonprofit and commercial start-ups in entertainment-related fields.

The plan relies heavily on as-yet uncommitted FEMA money, plus historic preservation tax credits to finance a massive interior renovation. The developers also want to use state tax credits for music and film investment to lure tenants in advance of an anticipated December 2011 reopening.

Juneau’s development team, which responded to a request for proposals issued by Nagin’s administration in September, also includes restaurateur Leah Chase, Voodoo Experience festival producer Steve Rehage and a handful of music-industry executives who have expressed, in writing, their desire to set up shop in the revamped space. “With this kind of cooperation and this kind of partnership,” Nagin said, “I can’t imagine them (council members) not supporting this.”

At this point, the only certain opposition to the auditorium plan appears to be from Leo Watermeier, the longtime leader of the Friends of Armstrong Park group and an outspoken critic of Nagin’s other plans for the park. On Monday, Watermeier questioned the fairness of the public bid process for the project and said it was an attempt “to turn over a valuable public asset to the mayor’s friends.”

“The bid specs were designed so one group could submit them. The other developers soon realized the bid was already cooked,” he said. Watermeier said the Municipal Auditorium should be restored to its original use, adding that he and neighbors he said he represents are “skeptical that a large commercial enterprise belongs in the park.” “There’s nothing but vacant land in this city, so if this is such a good idea, why not build it on vacant land elsewhere?” he added.

Nagin dismissed suggestions that Juneau, who has openly discussed his ideas for the auditorium for more than a year, had any advantage. “I talked to Stewart a while back, but I’ve talked to other developers who are out there about this particular concept and tried to get people to give me some ideas about what we could do with this building,” Nagin said. “I don’t know if they have a running start because they sure have a lot of work to do going forward.”

Juneau, a local real estate maven who turned the former Maison Blanche building on Canal Street into the Ritz-Carlton hotel, said he is preparing to launch a six-week community outreach program to get feedback from citizens.

“This is a conceptual plan and conceptual plans mean exactly that,” Juneau said. “It means it’s a living and breathing organism. It will grow, it will change.” Juneau, who said he plans to stage a “festival-style” public event in early December, said he and his team members are “capable and open to listening and modifying the plan that we have.”

Nagin said Juneau’s proposal offers the opportunity to transform Armstrong Park into “the premier cultural and music complex in America and probably in the world.” Nagin said he will continue to suggest “good ideas” like the auditorium development.

“Now, hopefully the council will buy into it,” he said. “But that’s up to us. It depends upon what the people say — whether they like this type of initiative or not.”

and the background on this story

New Orleans library chairman Irvin Mayfield has aggressively replaced system’s leadership
By David Hammer, The Times-Picayune
December 17, 2008, 8:18PM
TED JACKSON / THE TIMES-PICAYUNELibrary CEO Rita Trigs and Irvin Mayfield talk about the agenda for the opening of the Lakeview library branch.

When the New Orleans Public Library released its 25-year, $650 million master plan in the spring, nationwide praise rolled in for board Chairman Irvin Mayfield Jr.

The renowned jazz trumpeter, brash and 30 years old, heralded a fundamental push for change at a library system decimated by Hurricane Katrina. Everyone from the New York Times to Billboard magazine to The Times-Picayune pointed to Mayfield as just the man who could overcome both the system’s pre-storm neglect and the damage inflicted by Katrina.

But while nobody doubts that Mayfield is a passionate ambassador for his hometown and its library, his moves as board leader — at least so far — have only added to the tumult in the system.

Often outside the public eye, Mayfield and other board members have cleaned house aggressively — overly so, in the eyes of critics. The four top-ranking librarians and the director of a library support foundation all left as Mayfield, a Grammy nominee whose main gig is directing the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, conducted a major realignment that made a former mayoral aide who isn’t a professional librarian the system’s top administrator. For now, the support foundation is being directed on an interim basis by a volunteer, Ronald Markham, who is also the chief executive of Mayfield’s orchestra and a childhood buddy.

Some departed librarians, as well as close observers of the board’s affairs, see the shakeup as a power play by a musician-cum-political figure who wants to micromanage a sprawling library operation from a board seat.

See the current administrators

‘Signs of disarray’

In a recent article, the Library Journal, a national trade publication, bemoaned “signs of disarray” and a “loss of institutional memory” in the New Orleans library changes.

Elizabeth Bedikian, a former ranking member of the library staff who left the institution in 2004 — two years before Mayor Ray Nagin named Mayfield to the board — said the governing body has driven away the very people it needs to rebuild.

“These are people who came back after Katrina and led the charge and worked very hard, ” she said. “In my day, the board didn’t run the show: The library director did.”

No apologies

But Mayfield and Rica Trigs, 36, a former aide to Mayor Marc Morial now serving as the library’s chief administrator, make no apologies for shaking up the institution. Both contend the system was plagued by underperformers. They said there was a need to break from traditional civil service methods, promoting lower-level employees over their bosses.

“Whenever someone in city government has the audacity to be great, people say, ‘What’s wrong with these guys?’ ” Mayfield said.

Mayfield and Trigs openly disdain the city’s civil service system as too limiting, with Mayfield acknowledging that if he had his way, the entire library leadership would consist of unclassified, at-will employees.

They also talk of creating new expectations and a sense of accountability.

“We’re hiring people who are qualified and know how to work for the public, ” Trigs said. “For so long we haven’t had that. . . . We can’t be passive. So, we’re working hard on staff development and core competency.”

‘She’s just plain smart’

Mayfield, who called Trigs “my partner in crime” at the recent opening of one temporary library, sees no problem with his top aide’s lack of library science training. The recently promoted staffer has a master’s degree in urban studies and has drawn praise for her command of federal aid programs and recovery policies.

“She’s just plain smart, and after Katrina, she was the only one who knew where anything was, ” said Helen Kohlman, a board member for 27 years.

While library patrons may hear little of it, internal turmoil has marked the library system since Katrina heavily damaged or destroyed eight of 13 branches.

The shakeups began in the fall of 2006 when Nagin replaced board member Tania Tetlow, a high-profile advocate for the system, with Mayfield, already a member of the library foundation’s board.

A quick ascension

At Mayfield’s first board meeting, an interim director for the library, Geraldine Harris, announced her resignation. Mayfield immediately became board chairman, something system veterans had never seen.

As the board launched a nationwide search for a new director in early 2007, the system’s personnel director, Sam Stoute, left to work for the Fire Department, leaving a vacancy that has yet to be filled. In the fall of 2007, the board suspended and then fired business manager Monna Mathieu, citing poor performance. Mathieu unsuccessfully challenged her removal in a civil service appeal, and couldn’t be reached for comment for this report.

Her old position has remained unfilled, resulting, library veterans say, in a pileup of unpaid bills that has undone relations with several vendors. One computer supplier, Benecom Technologies of New Orleans, pulled its business when the library took nine months to pay $17,000 in invoices.

Feeling marginalized

There were expectations for a smoother leadership era when, in July 2007, the board hired as the library’s new director Donna Schremser, an acclaimed library executive from Alabama with rich experience in building facilities. “We’re very excited, ” said Trigs, coordinator of administration at the time. “She comes highly recommended.”

But soon it became clear to Schremser that she was being marginalized, left out of key decisions. In March, the board named Trigs to the new position of chief operating officer.

The board followed that change with a decision in June to create a new leadership team headed jointly by the COO, Trigs, and the director, Schremser. The shared leadership structure had no precedent in U.S. public libraries, according to the Urban Libraries Council.

In that same meeting, the board also promoted a pair of midlevel librarians over the heads of three higher-ranking ones: Linda Marshall Hill, Elisabeth Konrad and Jim Mitchell.

While Schremser initially followed orders in delivering news of the board-mandated staff shakeup to other ranking librarians, some of those affected balked, saying the new arrangement was unworkable. The top civil service librarians — three bureau chiefs with a combined 57 years in the city library system — all left in July and August.

First to go was Hill, who was widely acclaimed for her 23 years in the system and her management of the main library downtown after Katrina. She declined a position on the new executive team, taking early retirement when two subordinates were promoted over her peers.

“The executive leadership team is an end-run around the library administration, ” Hill said. “When I saw my two fellow bureau chiefs excluded, I just couldn’t live with it.”

A few days after Hill’s resignation, Mitchell, a bureau chief and interim branch manager, quit rather than take a demotion. And in August, Konrad, a bureau chief with 28 years of experience who served as head of systems, was confronted with performance and personal issues and decided to take early retirement.

On Sept. 18, Schremser was gone, too, a mere year after the board hired her with fanfare.

Director goes

Mayfield now says Schremser was “out to lunch, ” missed portions of important board meetings, couldn’t produce director’s reports and needed Trigs to do everything, including coordinating rebuilding plans.

“If I could do it over again, I would have chosen nobody and promoted from within, ” said Mayfield, who said he was relieved to turn over daily control of the library to Trigs.

Schremser denies the performance charges, and Hill and Konrad argue that the head librarian was set up to fail. Hill said that “from the start, Rica was Irvin’s go-to person” and that “I never saw Irvin in Donna’s office except for maybe two times, and one was to inform her that they’d made Rica the COO.”

For example, in June, just before restructuring the leadership, Mayfield and Trigs went to the Miami-Dade Public Library to learn about best practices. They acknowledge they didn’t tell Schremser and the other top librarians about the publicly financed trip until they returned.

At Schremser’s annual review, Mayfield said he confronted her, but didn’t force her out. He recalled the conversation he and Kohlman had with Schremser:

“I asked her, ‘Do you think this is working out?’ She said, ‘No.’ I asked her, ‘Do you think the taxpayer deserves more?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ I asked her, ‘Do you think it’s time to part ways?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ That’s what I was hoping she’d say, quietly to myself.”

Schremser remembers it differently. She said Mayfield threatened to fire her if she didn’t resign.

She said the board used her as a tool to run off the passed-over bureau chiefs, Mitchell and Konrad. Then it was her turn.

“In the end, I got canned, too . . . no, I ‘got resigned, ‘ ” said Schremser, who has since taken a lower-level job with Jefferson Parish, as a provisional children’s librarian.

The day after Schremser resigned, Ron Biava, director of the New Orleans Public Library Foundation, the nonprofit that supports the library, followed suit. Biava will say only that he had “differences of opinion” with the board.

Mayfield, who personally raises cash and awareness for the library through special concerts, blasted Biava for failing to capitalize on post-Katrina good will in raising money. Biava told the library board he could raise $3.5 million, Mayfield says, but pulled in only $250,000.

Biava disputes those figures, but won’t elaborate. The foundation last filed a tax-exempt IRS return in 2006, when Biava served as a consultant instead of as director. That year, the foundation reported raising $1.1 million.

The decision-making process isn’t the easiest one for the public to follow. For instance, board members said the idea of promoting lower-ranking librarians over their bosses came from consultants. But Trigs has refused to release the consultants’ report because it wasn’t paid for with public money.

And it took a month of repeated requests and a threat of legal action to get the library board and the city attorney’s office to turn over minutes of the March and June board meetings. Trigs said the June minutes weren’t even transcribed until the newspaper asked for them.

Those minutes, as it turns out, don’t even say how board members voted. That’s because, Mayfield said, the votes were unanimous — like every single vote since he took over as chairman.

While Mayfield downplays his control, it’s clear who’s in charge. Some board members decline to give interviews without Mayfield’s approval. Kohlman says such deference is appropriate.

“He’s very good, he watches what he’s doing, ” she said. “Have you ever thought maybe he is a strong leader and what he’s proposing makes sense? Is that possible?”

Nagin is pleased enough with the “energetic” Mayfield that he recently named him to the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority board. But the mayor recently said he’d like to see Mayfield “get more of those libraries renovated and those new concepts going.”

Filling key leadership posts has also proved a slow process. Mayfield and Trigs concede the absence of a business manager and personnel director has caused problems. They say a search is under way for a new director for the support foundation, and Trigs said a new accountant will help with business management.

But it could be six months before a search even begins for a new library director, Trigs said. Mayfield is noncommittal, saying he still prefers to promote from within. That isn’t surprising to some of the duo’s critics, who note that the lack of a director leaves more power in the board’s hands.

The City Charter requires that the board have a professional, trained librarian “in charge of the libraries and other facilities under the (board’s) jurisdiction.” Failing a charter change, the board must replace Schremser — though no timeline is specified by law.

Mayfield says any new chief librarian would still share control with Trigs. Critics wonder, after the events of the past year, who would want the job.

“I think they would have a hard time getting a director because of what happened to me, ” Schremser said.

~ by maringouin on Tuesday, November 10, 2009.

One Response to “the jack of all trades”

  1. […] While all seven council members gathered at City Hall for their initial hearing on the spending plan , in which they must make up a $68 million shortfall, Nagin held a news conference about a mile away where he described the vision for …. Her old position has remained unfilled, resulting, library veterans say, in a pileup of unpaid bills that has undone relations with several vendors. One computer supplier, Benecom Technologies of New Orleans, pulled its business when …More […]

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