Noting “Changed Complexion of Staff,” Elmwood Park Public Library Board Takes Over: A Case Study in Library De-Professionalization

Kelly Jensen

Editor

Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

A wave of change is coming and employees can learn to swim or not — Elmwood Public Library Board President Chris Pesko, December 2022*

The December 2022 minutes** of the Elmwood Public Library Board meeting (IL) are unlike any public library meeting minutes you’ve likely seen. Though public comment was not long, the minutes indicate extreme discontent happening within the walls of the library.

And, perhaps, the library’s advertising over 1/5 of their positions as open–all of which are full-time, professional and managerial positions–also sheds light on what appears to be a Board eager to deprofessionalize the facility while implementing an anti-DEI, anti-inclusive culture in order to “align” with the needs of the community.

Screen shot of Elmwood Park Public Library job openings page.
Screen shot from 3/2/23 of the open positions at Elmwood Park Public Library. Several more positions will be listed in the coming weeks, as more staff have elected to walk away from their positions.

**

Elmwood Park is an inner Chicago suburb. A historically Italian community, over the last few decades, the demographics of the community of nearly 25,000 has shifted. The 2020 census showed 35% of the community included those of Hispanic/Latine heritage, in addition to roughly 28% of those in the community who identify as bi or multiracial. Over a quarter of residents were born outside of the United States as of 2020.

In December 2021, Elmwood Park Public Library (EPPL) director Tiffany Verzani resigned from her position***. Verzani is a career librarian, who worked her way from a children’s and teen librarian to director at EPPL, and has since taken on the role of Executive Director at another suburban Chicago library. During her tenure at EPPL, she worked to ensure personnel policies helped support staff. The minutes from the Bylaws, Goals, Policy & Personnel Committee show Verzani advocating for better time off policies for non-librarian and managerial staff, who no matter their years at the job, still only receive 2 weeks paid time off per calendar year. Other libraries in the area not only pay better, but they offer more robust benefits to staff. Board President Chris Pesko responded, suggesting that comparing the policies of EPPL to others was not necessary, as he believed the library provided enough. At that meeting, the Board agreed to increasing the number of floating holidays given to library staff by one, which, despite the increase, did not remain on par with the rest of Village employee benefits.

Upon Verzani’s departure, Jason Stuhlmann became interim director. The first order of business, as directed to him from the Library Board? Put Christmas trees up in the front lobby. Three trees, in fact. The Board had been set on this happening for years, despite the fact the decision not to have Christmas trees in the library was a result of understanding how they are not inclusive to the whole community. At the same meeting, the Board made it clear any and all communication with the library needed to go through them first.

The January 2022 Board Meeting began with a presentation from Deno Andrews, a retired Oak Park Trustee and manager of “Amari LLC” (which has no website or social media presence) who highlighted key pieces of strategic planning. These included “the dangers of data collection,” “the importance of population segmentation and representation,” and “statistically significant sampling size.” The goal of this was to discuss why data collection is important for a library, though the framing of it makes clear that Pesko’s goal for this guest presentation–paid for by the taxpayers–was to orient the library’s operation like a business, rather than as a government nonprofit service entity.

After the presentation, President Pesko asked the acting director to find out when the library’s display policy was last updated.

Slowly but surely, the Board continued to take more control over the library following Verzani’s departure. The role of the public library board in Illinois is one of advocacy; those who serve as trustees must put the best interests of the library first, and they must serve in a capacity that ensures laws are followed. Trustees have a role in hiring the director of a library, working with the director as support to ensure the library’s success, and to be one voice among those serving on the whole board to represent the best interests of the community. Library boards do NOT have authority on the day-to-day operations of the library.

So in May 2022, when the Board demanded to know every vacancy and departure within the library in order to determine how new employees would apply, be screened, and be evaluated, they overstepped their authority.

board policy on departures from library positions.
From the minutes of the 5/19/22 Elmwood Park Public Library Regular Board of Trustees meeting

This was only a continuation–and it was also the beginning of an even tighter grip on the library by the board.

inside library image

Emails between Board President Pesko and acting director Stuhlmann reveal discussion of both the forthcoming Director Job Search, but also subsequent professional roles that would need to be filled in the library.

Acting Director Stuhlmann describes why the librarian job requires an MLS.

The above came from a Freedom of Information Request (FOIA) to look at discussions of the Director position, which is why the email chain is not complete. But look at the third bullet point beneath section two: Stuhlmann, a professional librarian working as an interim director, clarifies to the board president that the upcoming role is a professional one. That indeed, a librarian with a degree is what the job entails, not just an undergraduate degree, and he clarifies why this is.

Pesko’s response is strong–indeed, requiring a degree could hamper the candidates who apply. But put a pin in this–we’ll come back to this point about diversity, equity, and inclusion shortly.

Chris Pesko responds why an MLS degree is a hindrance.

**

At the June meeting, the Board approved the hire of a circulation assistant and shelver and a circulation associate night shift supervisor (who was an internal hire). That evening would be the first Executive Session held to discuss the search for a new library director. The 20 minute session determined who would be on the search committee for the director: President Chris Pesko, along with trustees Elsa Volpe and Dee Gordon, Marisa Santangelo, and SK Narayan.

The July meeting included not only more discussion of hiring for positions within the library, but the policy laid out in May was amended: now the Board wanted to see the resumes of every applicant hired for a position, a list of every candidate who was interviewed, and notes as to why they were not hired. The description for the job of Adult Services Program Coordinator was also updated by Pesko. What that update included is not known, other than it was to “flip minimum qualifications.” Is this in reference to the job that required an MLS but now would not?

But the biggest note from the July meeting notes is that the Director Search Committee was ready to post their job. Where would they post it? The answer is Indeed.com, where they had to create an account.

The advertisement was not approved for distribution elsewhere until August, when it was pushed to LinkedIn and Facebook. You can find the LinkedIn position advertisement here. The word “Board” is used 13 times in the description of the job; “community” a mere eight, nine times if you include “residents.”

We are looking for an individual with an entrepreneurial spirit that uses critical thinking and fact-based, data driven concepts to ensure evolving needs are met. This individual will marry service based corporate concepts to library functions to novate the way our library serves the community, while operating within a regulatory and budget framework with an eye on value to the consumer.

**

According to information received via FOIA, there were 26 applications for the position over the course of its opening. Of those, eight were invited to interview for the role. Interviews took place between September 12–three days before the monthly board meeting–and November 1. There was a single round of interviews for each candidate, conducted via Zoom. That means candidates never met inside the library, never met the staff they’d be supervising, and never met the committee face-to-face. This is not standard practice for an entry level librarian job, and it certainly is not normal for the chief executive of a library.

Recall the Director Search Committee had five board members on it. But what follows shows who from the board attended each of those single interviews. Note that the acting director was not present at any of the interviews.

Image of the board members attending the interviews.

In one instance, only the Board President conducted the interview. Which candidates interviewed on which dates is unknown, but the playing field was never even from the start: the entire committee did not make it to most of the interviews.

One glance at the questions and guidance developed for the director interview show precisely the type of candidate the Board sought to hire. Indeed, these questions include bullet points beneath them for the interviewers to check for. The ideal candidate would be neutral like Switzerland in all they offer and they would play second fiddle to the direction of the library board in all decision making. There was no need for library experience nor a library degree, and as the December 2022 minutes note, President Pesko emphasized that the board was concerned with two things: someone who could manage a 1.7 million dollar budget and a staff of roughly 25 people.

Indeed, the ideal candidate would not work to “change the complexion” of the library but work to preserve neutrality–in other words, whiteness.

Elmwood Park Public Library Director Interview Questions
Obtained via FOIA request
Elmwood Park Public Library Director Interview Questions
Obtained via FOIA request
Elmwood Park Public Library Director Interview Questions
Obtained via FOIA request
Elmwood Park Public Library Director Interview Questions
Obtained via FOIA request
Elmwood Park Public Library Director Interview Questions
Obtained via FOIA request
Elmwood Park Public Library Director Interview Questions
Obtained via FOIA request
Elmwood Park Public Library Director Interview Questions
Obtained via FOIA request
Elmwood Park Public Library Director Interview Questions
Obtained via FOIA request

(Note that under the guidance, “we do not do things because ‘other libraries do them'” but just a couple of pages up, another random library is cited as an example for what the library should consider doing).

According to Pesko, most of the degreed librarian candidates “could not answer the questions provided in the interview process.” Recall, this process was not only a single Zoom interview, but it did not have any consistency with who was doing the interviewing. What questions could several skilled, knowledgeable, and trained administrative-level librarians not answer?

Perhaps the answer is they would not be “neutral.” That they would not give up their skills, knowledge, and expertise to a Board who does not spend their days inside the library and serving the whole community.

A board with deep ties to other village officials and businesses that could benefit from their control over the library.

Image of library bookshelves

Three days after the final interview, November 4, an email from Board President Pesko landed in the inboxes of the rest of the Board. The subject: “Urgent: Approval for Verbal Offer.”

Image of Pesko email for approval of new director.

Board members approved quickly, including “ok with me” as a response from Santangelo. This happened outside of any official meeting, either from the hiring committee or the Board as a whole, and as soon as Pesko received approval, he began the official onboarding process.

At the November 2022 board meeting, held November 17, the Board “officially” hired Michael Consiglio. His start day was November 18, the next day. Library staff did not know about the hiring decision, nor about the start date of their new director, until after that board meeting.

So when they walked into work the next day, they were hit with a new boss.

It will be of little surprise at this point to learn that the hired director, Michael Consiglio, is not a degreed librarian and he has no experience in library work whatsoever. He’s also a straight white man. What’s interesting about this is that it seems to run counter to the very argument President Pesko made earlier in 2022 that diversity, inclusion, and equity were key factors in writing and interviewing for a position. None of those aspects applied to the hiring process, and, despite being one of the most diverse communities in the Chicago suburbs, though certainly, hiring a white guy with no experience to do the job both allows the Board to truly be the director and his hiring ensures that the “complexion” of the library doesn’t change.

Moreover, as Trustee Fosco stated, the Board did not care about experience. In fact, he’d rather have someone off the street with demonstrated abilities over someone with a degree without experience. Of the ones he has hired, “the ones with street smarts work out best,” since “common sense” is more valuable than education.

Minutes from December 2022 board meeting.

More able to be railroaded, in other words.

Image of people using the public library

Who is Consiglio, though, and why was he the candidate hired for the position? According to his LinkedIn profile, Consiglio is the former Finance Manager for the Village of Bensenville, where he worked from February 2009 until March 2010. After departing that village, he worked as a “consultant” to Marotta & Associates.

Marotta & Associates, an accounting firm owned by the brother-in-law of Elmwood Park Village President Angelo “Skip” Saviano.

Marotta & Associates, an accounting firm hired to direct library finances in early 2023.

Consiglio has no library experience, has shifted the intended date for when he’ll “enroll” in an MLS program several times through his tenure so far, and he has not been employed full-time by an organization since 2010.

His first order of business? Ensure that the police feel comfortable in the library. Curiously, security was also a first order of business for the Board upon the Verzani’s departure–at that time, the board wanted to arm their security and give them police uniforms. To protect them, I guess, from the “changing complexion” of the library? To be Switzerland in all they offer? To make sure that employees don’t post Black Lives Matter inside the library?

michael consiglio's first 18 days report to the board of the elmwood park public library.

**

In many ways, what is happening at EPPL mirrors what has been happening just a few miles north at the Niles Public Library, where the board seized control of the library to ram their agenda in without consequence or pushback. EPPL’s Board has remained fairly unchanged over the last several election cycles, but with the rise of conservatism across the nation and in the Chicago suburbs, the power once held by white men has been slowing receding as the diversity, equity, and inclusion programs ensure more access to education, skills, and jobs for people of the global majority.

Consiglio’s tenure as director may have made the place more welcoming for police and he may find himself the first public library director to install a photo ID policy to require patrons to show photo identification in order to access materials and services; this is, of course, the antithesis of the public library. It is instillation of a police state.

Michael Consiglio has numerous financial ties to the city and particularly those who work for the Village of Elmwood Park. In addition to the unethical manner in which he was hired, the fact he “consulted” for a firm owned by the Village President’s brother in law–and that is being hired as the library’s financial firm–should raise red flags.

Village President Skip Saviano, who most recently ran on the “Citizens United Party of Elmwood Park”/”People’s Choice Party of Elmwood Park” ticket, did so with a slate of others. And who would be among his running mates? None other than Gina Pesko, wife of Chris Pesko, president of the Library Board.

Gina Pesko, who lists among the things she publicly likes on Facebook the push against “Illegal Immigration” and the “Young America’s Foundation, ” one of the foremost groups recruiting young people to right-wing, nationalist conservatism.

**

It should be no surprise that staff have been leaving. The library has been under siege for several years from the board, but until the board had the power to hire someone from outside the library world, to hire someone with financial and personal ties to others on the board and on the Village board, they have not had the explicit authority to do so. Now, they’ve done just that.

Library board elections are coming in April in Illinois, and several of the seats for the EPPL board are up for reelection, including Pesko’s. The roster of candidates are available via the Cook County Clerk’s office. Four incumbents are on the ballot, but so, too, are two new names. Both not only have library backgrounds, but both work in nearby suburban libraries. That’s more experience with the world of libraries and their goals than the director can boast, and it would certainly change the tides of direction for the public library and the community deserving of a strong, engaged, and inclusive institution.

Though if the board continues to use its connections across the village government and chooses to not disclose unethical relationships, EPPL will continue to see any old person off the street in offices of power, to ensure that the complexion of the multicultural community never gets darker than porcelain.

So is the board ensuring that every community member gets their $200 worth each year? Or are they instead ensuring they get that and more for themselves?


Note: several sources spoke with me, and I’ve elected not to use anything other than what is entirely available in public sources and in a single FOIA request. What is laid out above is the tip of the iceberg.

*This quote is from the board minutes that were altered from the originally published minutes, which are available here. The original minutes do not include the note about not letting staff drown.

**The EPPL Board has a history of altering the versions of the minutes made available to the public. This document represents the current state of the minutes, as of March 6, 2023. Because the board may alter these minutes, here’s the document of minutes to which are referred. Per the *note above, these are altered from the actual original minutes above. Pesko’s comment in the altered notes are more supportive.

***The director was actually fired, per sources, and the details of her resignation remain unknown due to a nondisclosure agreement with the board.