Home News Local News Riverhead library roiled by controversy: Trustees seek removal of board president

Riverhead library roiled by controversy: Trustees seek removal of board president

RIverhead Free Library trustees president Kathleen Berezny at the library in March. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Turmoil continues at Riverhead Free Library, where trustees now seek to remove president Kathleen Berezny from the board for alleged misconduct.

In a written complaint prepared by board member John Munzel, a retired attorney, Berezny is accused of intentionally misleading board members, exerting inappropriate control over library staff, meddling in the day-to-day management of the library and its staff, including terminating employees without board authorization or forcing their resignation, and threatening employees with dismissal.

Munzel said yesterday he expects the board will take up the complaint at its next regular monthly meeting, after a special meeting called for Oct. 27 did not muster a quorum.

Berezny refused to comment for this story. Reached by phone on Friday, she would not entertain a reporter’s question, interrupting with “No comment. No comment,” and hanging up.

Berezny was at the center of controversy late last year and this spring that led to the abrupt resignation of library director Joy Rankin and four of the library’s seven trustees at the time, including then-president Ian Wilder.  See prior story.

One trustee who resigned, Keith Jefferson — the only African-American member of the board — said Rankin, the first African-American director in the library’s 120-year history, was treated poorly by board members motivated by racism and bigotry. Berezny, who became president after Wilder resigned, vehemently denied that charge. “We are not that kind of people,” she told RiverheadLOCAL in an interview in March. Rankin declined comment on her resignation.

A longtime library employee promoted by Rankin to be her assistant was terminated by the board in May. The dismissal of that employee, Jane Hill, is one of the subjects of the formal complaint against Berezny, who is said to have engineered Hill’s dismissal by misleading the board with false allegations of bad behavior, according to the complaint.

The library, meanwhile, is still without a permanent director, the professional staff member who runs the organization — a situation some board members say is a direct result of Berezny’s behavior.

After accepting Rankin’s resignation on March 31, the board, at the same meeting, appointed Kathy Richter as interim director. Richter had previously served as library director in Riverhead from 1992 to 1996 and prior to that, she was the library’s AV director. Richter, a teacher in the Greenport school district, resigned from the position within about a month. She too was effectively forced out by the board president, according to trustees.

After that, reference librarian Kerrie McMullen Smith was named interim director for a six-month term. In September, her term was extended another six months, through March 2017. “Shortly thereafter, Berezny privately threatened Smith that she, Berezny, would have the resolution rescinded, and that Smith would be…effectively serving at the whim of Berezny,” the complaint says.

“There was never any discussion with the board of trustees about any rescission of the six-month resolution. The threat to have the resolution rescinded was without authority of the board of trustees. The realistic effect this attempted threat was to keep SMITH on a very short leash held by Berezny,” according to the complaint.

Board members also object to the control Berezny has exerted over the search for a permanent director. She refused board input in drafting an advertisement for the position and published one she wrote without board approval or authorization, they say. She used a personal address for resume submissions and culled through submissions before presenting them to the board, the complaint says.

“If she did not like an applicant, she could simply tear up his/her resume and the board would have no opportunity to decide on that candidate,” it says.

Other library employees have been terminated, forced to resign, or threatened, according to the complaint, a copy of which was obtained by RiverheadLOCAL. 

Right after Rankin’s resignation, Berezny got the board to remove Desiree Passantino from the library’s successful and popular ESL program, which was started by Rankin. She told board members the library was required to have a certified teacher in the post, which they say they’ve since learned was not true. Based on that information, they hired a teacher Berezny approved of, but due to other obligations, he could teach the classes in Riverhead only at times in direct conflict with other established Hispanic outreach programs in the community. The rescheduling has greatly diminished the ESL program, board vice president Louise Wilkinson said in an interview last week.

According to the complaint, on April 6, shortly after being reassigned, Passantino encountered Berezny at a community event where Berezny “grabbed [her] forearm and through clenched teeth said, ‘We are going to play nice, aren’t we?’ Said comment was without cause and unsettling in that it meant that [Passantino] would have to do Berezny’s bidding or else.”

Library employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, say Berezny has created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

“It’s palpable,” said one employee. “You can feel it. Morale among staff is at an all-time low.”

Another employee said the board president was “way out of control” and interfering with the library’s daily operations.

The role of a trustee is to set the library’s mission, secure funding, adopt policies regarding the library’s governance, promote the library in the local community and hire a qualified library director.

“The director, not the trustees, is the one who supervises, hires and fires staff,” Wilkinson said.

Berezny, a former trustee and past president of the Riverhead Central School District, should understand that, she said.

Wilkinson and Berezny were longtime friends, even working out together at the gym every morning. Berezny brought Wilkinson onto the library board, which — though technically elected by members of the library association — is essentially a self-appointed entity, especially when it comes to filling vacancies.

“She got mad at me for saying the board should be more reflective of the community,” Wilkinson said, noting the lack of representation of blacks and Latinos among board members.

“When we started to have differences of opinion about the way she was handling things,” the friendship ended, Wilkinson said. “She got loud at the gym, and I told her it was inappropriate. I told her I didn’t want to talk about library business outside of the library. I didn’t think it was right.” When the two got back into Wilkinson’s car to drive home, Berezny “got in my face, yelling at me as I drove,” Wilkinson said. “She was on her knees, leaning over and screaming at me. I just kept my hands on the steering wheel and drove.” That was the end of their morning workouts together.

Munzel, Wilkinson and board members Eileen Mackey and Keith Bossey were at the library for last week’s special meeting. Berezny was not there, though her husband and son were in the audience. Board members Millie Rios, the board treasurer, Karen Fedun-White, secretary, Dean Terchunian and Janet Wright were absent.

“She made frantic calls yesterday to board members saying ‘you can’t do this, you have to have all nine members present and I have a right to have my attorney present.’ So effectively she coerced enough people not to show up so we can’t make a quorum,” Mackey said. “None of that’s true. This has been in the works two months. We followed due process.”

The written complaint was served on Berezny and the rest of the board, Munzel said. Consideration of the matter was tabled at the Oct. 11 meeting due to the absence of one board member, he said. Removing a member is “a very serious matter” and the board thought all members should be present for the vote, though that’s not a legal requirement.

Munzel, Wilkinson and Mackey called a special meeting for Oct. 27, pursuant to the library’s bylaws, to act on the complaint and vote on a resolution removing Berezny from the board. But when only four board members showed up and there was no quorum — five are required — the action was delayed again. Munzel said yesterday he was confident that the board would take the matter up at this month’s meeting. It is usually held on the second Tuesday, he said, but since that’s Election Day, it would probably be held the following week instead, he said.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter and editor, an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including a “writer of the year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website. Email Denise.