Timberland Regional Library Trustee Resigns Over Salary Increases, Annual Leave Policy

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It's been a turbulent time for the Timberland Regional Library, which serves a five-county area, including Thurston.

Until Nov. 10, Brenda Hirschi was a trustee on the library's board representing Mason County, and up until Nov. 20, Eric Lowell was the library system's finance director.

Both are now gone.

Hirschi resigned, and later shared her concerns about the library system during public comment at one of two library board meetings on Nov. 18. Lowell attended both meetings, too.

Hirschi began her remarks by saying she was the first person to stand up for Cheryl Heywood, the executive director of the library system, after Heywood's staff proposed a controversial capital facilities plan in 2018 that envisioned closing branches in rural counties.

"I stated that I trusted Cheryl," Hirschi said in her remarks to the board. "Other trustees followed. (Library) patrons stopped showing up, screaming at us."

But Hirschi went on to say that her trust was misplaced in light of library salary and leave decisions she thought fell short of transparency. Library officials dispute that conclusion, saying everything was done in the open and with the board's approval.

"There are a number of similarities between the 2018 capital facilities plan and the manner in which she (Heywood) has approved exorbitant salary increases for her direct reports, as well as annual leave that is as high as 43 paid leave days," Hirschi said.

Hirschi zeroed in on two examples that show proposed salary increases of 27 percent and 54 percent for 2021.

"Trustees, I wish each of you all the best and thank you for volunteering," she said. "I found it to be a thankless job."

Later, in comments shared with a reporter, Hirschi said she felt pressure to leave the board.

Lowell didn't explain his reasons for leaving, but he did say during the meetings that his "integrity had been called into question." He also urged the board and the library administration to have a retreat so that "going forward things can improve."

Heywood, staff defend steps taken by library

During and after the meetings, Executive Director Heywood and other library staff strongly defended the steps taken by the library to raise salaries and increase annual leave, and they say Timberland has been transparent at every step.

A timeline of events, which has been posted on the TRL website, shows the board of trustees approved the hiring of a consultant to undertake a classification and compensation study in 2018. The library hadn't evaluated its compensation policies in about 14 years, human resources coordinator Kandy Seldin said.

Heywood was more blunt in her assessment of wages at the library, calling them "out of whack" with the times. The board approved the findings of the study in December 2019, and approved salary increases totalling $927,000 and benefit increases of $262,000 for January 2020. Of that total, $37,000 went to the administration, Heywood said.

Heywood pointed out that four people in the administration had recently left for other jobs, and the library system chose not to fill the positions, instead giving those duties to existing employees and saving the system about $500,000. But, Heywood said, if you're going to make people wear more hats, they need to be well paid.

Finance director Lowell, who also was the library system's IT director, said the 54 percent wage increase was given to an administrative assistant who was turned into an operations coordinator.

Lewis County Trustee Brian Zylstra said he understood the need to pay people more for wearing more hats, but he too questioned the 43 paid days of leave.

Hirschi arrived at the figure by combining 25 days of annual leave, along with 11 holidays, such as Christmas Day, as well as up to five days of management leave and two personal days. If employees were to take all of that time, it amounts to 43 days off in a year.

To Hirschi, that means some employees are being paid 12 months of the year to work about 10 months.

Heywood defends the 25 days of annual leave, saying it is just five days more than the 20 days she received in 1996 when she was first hired by the library.

And only certain employees start at that level, such as librarians and library managers, Heywood said. They also are exempt staff, meaning they work 45-60 hours per week regularly and are on call during the weekends.

"We recognize how dedicated they are," Heywood said.

The board responds

So, was there something lost in translation between the board and the library administration? Perhaps. The timeline to approve the compensation study is extremely detailed.

Pacific County Trustee Bob Hall, who acknowledged he didn't always see eye-to-eye with Hirschi, took up her cause during the Nov. 18 meetings and said he realized there were gaps in information he had received about the salary increases.

Thurston County Trustee Nicolette Oliver said she supports the results of the compensation study and wants to make sure staff are welcomed and appreciated for their work. But was it well communicated?

"The compensation was a good move, but as a system we can do better," she said.

Lewis County Trustee Zylstra supports the idea of a retreat to improve the relationship between the board and staff. Grays Harbor County Trustee Corby Varness thanked Hirschi for her service.

"I'm sorry she had to resign," Varness said. "She was a heck of a board member and a bulldog and she shouldn't be faulted for that."

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