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Board member’s complaint against library president is withdrawn for lack of support

Library trustees president Kathy Berezny at the Nov. 15 board meeting, with interim director Kerri McMullen-Smith.
Photos: Denise Civiletti

A complaint seeking the removal of Riverhead Free Library president Kathy Berezny from the library board of trustees was withdrawn during a tense and contentious board meeting Tuesday night at the library.

Trustee John Munzel withdrew the complaint he’d filed against Berezny with the board, saying it had become clear that it was “pointless” to pursue it.

“I brought a petition to remove Berezny and I see we don’t have the votes,” Munzel said. “It’s pointless to keep the reporter here,” he said, referring to a stenographer taking minutes of the meeting. “So you can go home — and send a smaller bill than you would otherwise.”

Trustee John Munzel, a retired Riverhead attorney, filed a complaint seeking removal of the board president but withdrew it Tuesday night because it did not have support of a board majority. Photo: Denise Civiletti
Trustee John Munzel, withdrew his complaint seeking removal of the board president. 

The stenographer’s presence rankled Munzel, who asked who authorized her employment because, he said, the board had not voted to do so.

Berezny said the stenographer was hired by the library’s attorney, Tom Volz, who was also in the audience for the meeting.

Munzel questioned the lawyer’s attendance there as well, and before the board voted to approve a resolution to pay the library’s bills for the month, he questioned invoices submitted by the library’s attorney for legal research, consultations and attendance at the September meeting — all of which Munzel said was not authorized by the board.

“I was protecting the board,” Berezny said. “I called Tom. It’s my job to protect the board.”

Munzel said the board got a bill for “about $2,800 worth” of legal research. “And I want to know who authorized it,” he said. He noted other invoice items totaling more than $1,200.

“You were the target,” he told Berezny. “You created a conflict of interest. He represents the board and not you.”

“I have the board to protect,” the president responded.

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The board voted 5-2 to approve payment of the bills, including the lawyer’s invoices. Munzel and board vice president Louise Wilkinson voted against the motion. Berezny, board secretary Karen Fedun-White, treasurer Millie Rios, members Dean Terchunian, and Janet Wright voted in favor. Eileen Mackey and Keith Bossey were absent.

When Munzel announced he was dropping Berezny’s complaint, Berezny called a recess and left the room with an unidentified man who’d been seated in the audience. She made no comment when she returned, but Rios  made a motion to accept Munzel’s “dismissal of the complaints against Kathy Berezny with prejudice.”

In a roll-call vote, only Wilkinson voted against it. Munzel abstained, saying he was withdrawing the complaint and no vote was necessary. The other members voted yes.

''I am the victim,' board president Kathy Berezny said. Photo: Denise Civiletti
”I was the victim,’ board president Kathy Berezny said. 

“I was the victim and I had to make sure that I was taken into consideration,” Berezny said after the vote. She said she “spoke to the state” about the matter.

“I apologize to the people who came to be heard,” Munzel said. “It would just be a waste of time.”

There were many in the audience who had grievances to air before the board — and they did, despite Munzel’s withdrawal of the complaint and over some objection voiced by Berezny and Terchunian, who both said many of the comments being made were not appropriate for a public session because they involved personnel issues.

“You people have a fiduciary responsibility. We pay taxes. You people are holding our money, spending our money,” Joe Colao of Riverhead said. “You’re cutting services but spending thousands of dollars here,” he said, referring to the lawyer and the stenographer.

Joe Colao of Riverhead stood to complain about the reassignment of the library's ESL coordinator and other issues. Photo: Denise Civiletti
Joe Colao of Riverhead stood to complain about the reassignment of the library’s ESL coordinator and other issues.

Colao also complained about the removal of Desiree Passantino as the person running a successful ESL program at the library. Passantino was replaced earlier this year. Her removal and Berezny’s alleged treatment of Passantino was one of the subjects of Munzel’s complaints.

“That is a decision made by the director. The board does not make those decisions,” Terchunian said. “The director is our only employee. The director makes those decisions. The director runs this place, not the board,” he said, provoking murmurs and a few exclamations from members of the audience.

“I’d like to know why we take away someone who made $16 and gave it to someone who’s a high-priced outsider,” Colao said.

The library’s interim director, Kerri McMullen-Smith, who is the second interim to serve in the post since the abrupt resignation of director Joy Rankin in March, said that decision was made before she was the interim director.

“There’s a whole host of things going wrong in this library,” said Colao, who also voiced complaints about the removal of touch-less faucets in the bathroom and the library security guards not having Narcan training.

“I am so disappointed,” he said. “I hope the trustees who take their jobs seriously step up.”

Board treasurer Milagros Rios and member Dean Terchunian. Photo: Denise Civiletti
Board treasurer Milagros Rios and member Dean Terchunian.

Terchunian replied, “Mistakes can be made and they can be rectified. And you will see changes, I guarantee you.”

Ex-employees Nancy Farmer and Jane Hill both stood up to complain about being terminated or forced to resign by Berezny on May 19. Farmer said she had been employed at the library for 21 years.

Terchunian read a provision of the library’s bylaws that gives the authority to the board to remove an employee upon a vote of a majority of the board.

Former assistant to the director Jane Hill.
Former assistant to the director Jane Hill.

Hill asked if there was a vote before her termination, because she said she was terminated prior to the board meeting on May 19.

“We have a resolution,” Berezny answered.

“Was the vote before or after my termination?” Hill contends she was fired by the president without a board resolution — which she said was adopted afterward. Terchunian said last night the resolution was approved prior to her dismissal.

“I want to express my deep and bitter disappointment that Mr. Munzel has seen fit to withdraw his complaint,” Hill said.

“Kathy, you mentioned earlier you were the victim of this,” she said. “I just want to say there are many of us here who feel that we are the victims of you personally,” she said, drawing applause.

“It’s been quite an emotional and financial burden on me — what you did to me,” Hill said, “and I feel that you did it underhandedly from what I understand and I feel that was quite wrong of you. I still don’t understand what you did to me.”

Hill had been the assistant to the library director Rankin, who resigned in March, several months ahead of the expiration of her contract. Four of the seven sitting trustees, including the board president — there were two vacancies — also resigned.  Former board members said infighting on the board led to their resignations. One accused Berezny and other board members of racism in their treatment of Rankin, the library’s first African-American director; Berezny vehemently denied the charge. 

The churn on the board, plus the filling of the two vacancies, means five of its nine members are new to the board this year. 

Mary Kromhout, president of Friends of the Riverhead Free Library, stood Tuesday night to complain about the conduct of board business and meetings.

“There is another victim in this room and that is the library,” she said. “We can’t get people to join us… You’re killing the library. I’m ashamed of the lack of professionalism in this room,” she 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.