News » News Feature

Angry voices rising over Durham library director

Three top staffers have left and morale is a shambles at one of the county's most respected institutions. But Philip Cherry III won't answer criticisms.

by

comment
Some people say the Durham County library director is a difficult man. In his previous job in Illinois, Philip Cherry III drove away half a dozen top managers with his tyrannical style. He made subordinates cry and publicly clashed with library trustees and city aldermen--all in just 15 months, before he was asked to resign.

Here in Durham, some of Cherry's employees tick off problem after problem under "King Philip's"14-month reign: job vacancies long unfilled, security lapses, a dress code they find ridiculous, grant money approved for one purpose and spent for another. They speak of sinking morale and Cherry's "open-door policy" that isn't.

"Any kind of input becomes a threat to him--he's not averse to yelling, 'I'm the director!'" says one employee.

Is this the right man to oversee Durham's library system, a public institution cherished by its patrons and envied by neighbors across the county line, the system the county commissioners chairwoman calls "the jewel in Durham's crown?"

Does he know his staff is tired from covering the workloads of departed colleagues? What's his plan for addressing rampant security and maintenance problems? Can he successfully guide the system through this crucial time in its history, moving out of two tough years of tight resources and into a major expansion funded by bonds overwhelmingly approved by loyal patrons at the polls?

Cherry isn't answering any of these questions. He dodged phone calls from The Independent for two weeks. His secretary finally called back to report, apologetically: "Mr. Cherry will not be available to talk with you." In person on a recent weekday morning, the $83,000-a-year administrator brushed off yet another interview request. "I have some business. I have some business, and I'm on the run," he said brusquely, demanding that a photographer stop shooting. Entering the lobby, Cherry ordered security guards to his rescue.

Inside Cherry's domain, troubles escalate. Rank-and-file staffers describe a pall of discontent and frustration that is beginning to show itself to patrons. Employees--including three high-level managers--have begun to leave.

"There's a lot of mistrust of Philip Cherry," says former librarian assistant Sandra Covin, who worked the circulation desk at the main library for two years before quitting two weeks ago. "There are all these things that are left undone, there are a lot of things to do, and he doesn't delegate anything."

It's a pattern Judy Wilson-Sweet knows well.

"Our library was going to hell in a hand-basket very quickly. Staff morale was as low as I've ever seen it," says Wilson-Sweet, the head of the library workers union in Rockford, Ill., where Cherry worked before coming to Durham in July 2002. "Rockford achieved an extremely bad reputation, and Philip burned a lot of bridges."

As Cherry's critics have quietly begun to worry about the Durham library system's future and ask questions about his past, they've been dismayed to discover that the 41-year-old administrator has a history of similar difficulties in previous jobs--and flabbergasted to learn the search committee that brought him to Durham knew all about them.

"How did he get hired? Durham is a laughingstock," says one staffer.

Staff worries and departures
In recent months, the managers at two of the eight branches--downtown and Parkwood--have left. The public relations director left shortly after Cherry took over. Several other mid-level employees also have departed, leaving the library down "7 or 8 key positions," says one trustee. As Covin said her goodbyes to co-workers on Aug. 29, many of them said they wished they were leaving, too.

"Morale has plummeted in the last year, and people don't become depressed and glum for no reason," Covin says. "People feel like they don't have a voice."

Fearing retribution, workers rattled off their concerns to Covin, asking her to convey them to The Independent, while others agreed to be interviewed directly without their names.

Among their concerns: Cherry's lack of response on issues small and large; staffers being asked to explain to state officials why their boss spent grant money without approval; ongoing maintenance and security problems like dirty carpets and bathrooms, and three break-ins in two months; books and materials being stolen at an alarming rate, thanks to an alarm glitch.

Several library trustees, county commissioners and administrators say many of the problems employees cite preceded Cherry, and blame two years of budget cuts and hiring freezes. They also downplay the departing personnel, saying it's the natural fallout from a change in leadership.

"Philip is a take-charge person. He comes in and he knows what his job is and he does it. He's done that here in Durham, and that's raised some eyebrows of the powers that be. But he should be given the headroom to run the library," says county commissioners' Vice Chairman Joe Bowser, the liaison to the library board.

Bessie Carrington, a library trustee who served on the search committee that selected him, notes that Cherry's predecessor, Dale Gaddis, had run the system for 20 years.

"When a new person comes in, that pushes people in a new direction," says Carrington.

But the departure of key staff tells a different story to some library professionals in Rockford, where Cherry worked from June 2000 to October 2001. They watch Durham's high-ranking vacancies appear, one after the other, through help-wanted ads in trade journals, and recognize a pattern they don't consider benign.

Rockford's facilities manager, community relations director and several other key employees left before Cherry's bosses finally dumped him, instead.

"I didn't want to leave the library--I loved the library," says Bruce Nelson, the facilities chief. Nelson left after Cherry took over a $1.4-million construction project without any building expertise, and borrowed money for it without telling his board. "He has an ego. He was the director, and he wanted everyone to know that...his management style was he wanted to do everything himself."

Cherry's fall from grace was chronicled in detail in The Rockford Register Star. Upon his arrival in June 2000, with many laurels on his resume, editorials cheered his commitment to updating technology and increasing private fund-raising. Rockford officials were impressed with Cherry's work in Hickory from 1996 to 2000. There, he instituted the nation's first public library "smart-card" system, a technological advance that turned library cards into debit cards patrons could use to pay copying fees and overdue fines. He also shepherded construction of a two new libraries--a $6.3-million replacement for the main library downtown, and the town's first branch--earning kudos for raising more than $2 million in private donations to supplement taxpayer dollars.

His Hickory initiatives garnered headlines in the pages of Southern Living and The New York Times, landed a sample "smart-card" in the Smithsonian Institution collection and contributed to the Hickory Public Library being named one of the top five in the nation in 1998.

Arriving in the Midwestern town about 90 miles west of Chicago, however, Cherry quickly ran into conflicts.

In March 2001, he angered 80 unionized workers by proposing to discontinue seniority-based raises, nearly causing a strike. The following month, Nelson and the training director quit, saying their new boss had created a workplace atmosphere of "tension and secrecy." The business manager and public relations director departed a few months later. And while the messy personnel problems were publicly embarrassing its board in headlines, trustees were even more chagrined to discover--via the newspaper--that Cherry planned to ask taxpayers to pony up for an aggressive $30-million expansion project. Joined by outraged city aldermen, two trustees publicly castigated Cherry for broadcasting a plan they not only didn't support, but didn't even know about.

On Oct. 3, 2001, Cherry resigned. The Rockford trustees continued to pay his $77,000 annual salary and his benefits for six more months.

"It was a very, very difficult time for the Rockford library, and for the entire community," one of the Cherry's former employees says today. "I can really feel for the people who are going through it now."

Durham's three top managers who have left their jobs--Parkwood branch manager John Blake, downtown branch manager and assistant director John McConogha and public relations director Pam Jaskot--all declined to be interviewed. But some of Blake's frustrations are visible in a public letter to the commissioners, where he asks them to address what he called Cherry's "need to threaten and intimidate his staff."

A national search, a local find
When a search committee made up of library trustees, an assistant county manager and several members of the community began seeking a successor to Gaddis in April 2002, Cherry seemed a natural fit. He was raised eastern North Carolina, and earned his bachelors degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and his master's degree from N.C. Central University, where he also served as the president of the alumni association in 1996. He worked in the Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg systems before moving to Hickory in 1996, and as a page in the Durham library very early in his career. After advertising nationally, the committee reviewed dozens of resumes and background material, eventually choosing two finalists for County Manager Mike Ruffin's consideration.

"What was in the newspaper in Rockford was not a secret," says Ann Craver, the vice chair of the board of trustees, a community advisory board appointed by the commissioners to set library policies. "I wouldn't say it was not of concern, but it was not of concern enough to disqualify him."

Bowser, the liaison between the commissioners and the library board, says he participated sporadically in the committee because he thought "a black candidate wouldn't get a fair shake." Bowser, who also heads the local branch of the NAACP, says he believes Cherry's ouster from his previous job in the predominantly white Illinois town was based on racism.

The committee also checked Cherry's references at previous jobs in North Carolina, receiving positive reports, according to Bowser. But as one of Cherry's former colleagues in Hickory says pointedly, North Carolina's community of public librarians is small. Those in the field don't speak ill of insiders, because they may work together again at some point. For example, Jaskot, Durham's departed public relations director, now works at the State Library of N.C., where part of her job is supporting her former supervisor.

(John Blake, who left last month after 25 years with the Durham library, now works for the Durham Public Schools. John McConogha, a nine-year veteran, left in January to become the director in Clark County, Ohio.)

Cherry's schooling at Central and other local connections have led some of his critics to speculate that he had an "in" on the job that outweighed the information about his past. But committee members insist he was the best candidate.

"There wasn't a single candidate without both pros and cons," says Carrington.

The change in directors coincided with a turning point in the Durham system's history. Long appreciated by its 100,644 users for its extensive and unusual collections and helpful reference librarians, among other qualities, the system was coming off a two-year budget crisis. After surviving hiring freezes and cuts to support systems, including the general services staff responsible for cleaning and landscaping, the library was gearing up for a major expansion. Voters in 2001 approved a $10.2-million bond to build two new libraries now being designed--one each in eastern and northern Durham County, and to buy land for a third in the south. This fall, library supporters are hoping voters say yes to a $4.6-million bond for the new southern building.

Upgrades to resources are also in the works, especially on the technology front.

In July 2002, the Durham library received a $55,000 state grant for a particular software upgrade. But when the project cost less than expected, Cherry spent the leftover money on new computers that were not approved in the grant, prompting a letter of inquiry from the state when Cherry asked for the reimbursement check.

"Where we were involved in the timeline was not the preferred route," says Penny Hornsby, who oversees grants for the State Library of N.C. Durham had been slated to get $16,000 to buy new computers in the 2003-04 state grant cycle, but after Cherry spent last year's leftovers, the state canceled it because Cherry had already bought the computers he was requesting.

"Officially, it was in keeping with what they had planned," Hornsby says. "But we had some concerns about how the roll-out occurred."

Cherry similarly manipulated a grant in Rockford, says Wilson-Sweet, the union leader.

"He has the attitude he can do whatever he wants, and he's not fiscally responsible," she says.

On the personnel front, most of the positions vacated under Cherry remain unfilled, though a countywide hiring freeze was lifted months ago. Trustees say the director is redefining some jobs. Employees point out that that some duties are now assigned to staffers with no relevant training or expertise, and key tasks simply remain undone. For example, the departed PR director coordinated volunteers. No one else assumed that duty, so individual departments have seen a drop-off in volunteer help--a real loss in times of short-staffing.

Cherry has not filled McConogha's dual position of assistant director and main branch manager for nine months, and it's unclear whether or when he plans to. In the meantime, when a patron asks to speak to a manager about a problem, there's no one to turn to, says Covin--even though Cherry's office is just up the stairs.

"We're told he's not going to come down to settle a dispute--patrons have to make an appointment to see him," Covin says. "So we don't even know who to call."

On Sept. 2, Cherry defended his delay in filling that position, telling an internal staff committee that it's "a complicated process." At that same meeting, according to the minutes, Cherry scolded staff members for talking to the press, saying "misinformation will not be tolerated."

Meanwhile, everyday problems have begun to draw complaints from patrons like Alex Kostelnik, a downtown resident and frequent patron of the main branch. Kostelnik wrote Cherry a letter about a recurring bathroom problem several weeks ago; he's never received a response.

"The main library is like the living room of our community, and it needs to be pleasant and inviting," says Ellen Reckhow, the commissioners chairwoman. In response to complaints from citizens and employees, Reckhow recently led a walk-through of the downtown branch, pointing out various problems to Cherry and his supervisor, assistant county manager Carolyn Titus.

Last month, Cherry presented a plan to round up $400,000 in overdue fines and lost materials by hiring an outside collection agency, a proposal that met with praise from county commissioners and positive headlines in the local press.

But Cherry's solutions to the other problems now brewing in his realm are elusive. His boss says, "You'll have to ask Philip for the details."

Told Cherry wouldn't return a phone call or agree to an interview, much less answer tough questions about his leadership, Titus replies: "I'll make a note of that." EndBlock

Add a comment

Quantcast