Battles over diversity, inclusion mentioned
Steven Potter was already suffering the effects of COVID stress while managing one of the largest library systems in the country when a pattern of contentiousness among the library’s board of trustees made it possible for him to walk away from the top post. The 53-year-old recently announced his decision to retire after 12 years as chief executive officer of the Mid-Continent Public Library (MCPL), a system that serves 850,000 residents in Platte, Clay, and Jackson counties.
While Potter said he has carefully crafted weekly emails to staff that included encouraging his charges to take care of themselves and their families during the pandemic stress, he admits he failed to take his own advice. Potter said he neglected to care for himself and those closest to him. He contrasted his before- and after-pandemic disposition during a telephone interview when he said, “I was full of all kinds of energy. and (now, including after dealing with the death of his mother at the beginning of the pandemic) I need a break. I’m not as effective as I need to be.”
He added that before his retirement decision, “I was too worried about my staff. I just felt tired and burned out.”
Potter and a former library board of trustees member said not all the stress can be blamed on the pandemic. Some rests with an ongoing battle over diversity and inclusion that has infiltrated the library governing body’s meetings during the last few years. The controversy has led some patrons to speak out at meetings, charging that some members’ resistance to diversity and inclusion signals racism (a charge that members have openly denied).
The division began in 2016, they said, when Platte County Commission members, who appoint board of trustees members, openly opposed Proposition L. Income from the levy, approved by voters, has been used to renovate and construct new library buildings and increase internet capability while allowing for increases in the numbers of books, movies and music owned by the system. The commissioners, Presiding Commissioner Ron Schieber and then-commissioners Duane Soper and Beverly Roper, launched a public campaign to defeat the proposal, filing a Platte County lawsuit opposing its inclusion on the ballot as a capital and operating tax. The court eventually ruled against the commissioners and stated placing only an operating tax was appropriate and the court gave its approval of the measure to appear on the ballot, where it passed overwhelmingly. (The MCPL board of trustees is comprised of members who represent Jackson, Clay and Platte Counties.)
Another contentious subject was one in which the majority of the trustees voted not to accept a diversity audit, which was conducted by an outside firm and recommended hiring more minorities and other measures to better represent the makeup of library patrons. The outside agency contrasted the system’s non-minority employees with a patron base they described as “incredibly diverse.” When reached, Yummy Pandolfi, a Platte County trustee, said in an emailed response that a vote by trustees has been misinterpreted in media accounts. The vote by the majority of trustees did not represent whether the trustees accepted the results. “Some of us thought it was out of place to propose such a vote since it is public record that the audit was presented,” she said in an emailed response. Further, the vote “had nothing to do with the results of the audit,” some of which Pandolfi said she agreed with and some she didn’t. Pandolfi said that “no one on the board, myself included, is against improving equality in the workspace, but I will not be bullied into accepting a far-left agenda.” she wrote in the email.
Based on the audit’s findings, Potter said one of his goals was to hire a minority employee to fill a management position at MCPL. The system’s 750 employees currently have only Caucasians in management. But Potter’s retirement, effective June 30, means the goal will be faced by his successor.
Jane Rinehart, a Clay County trustee for about six years who vacated her seat on the board about two years ago, said the diversity and inclusion audit “would be the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.”
Some observers say the current Platte County Commission members-Ron Schieber, Dagmar Wood, and Joe Vanover–continue to appoint trustees who tend to vote in blocks on most issues. A trustee who asked not to be named stated it’s as if the Platte County trustees represent the Platte County Commission instead of the Platte County library patrons.
Rinehart said that “other libraries look to us” and described Potter and the MCPL system as “a shining star in the world of libraries.” Potter, who is routinely asked to speak at library conferences throughout the nation, co-authored a book on the craft that acts as a guide to other librarians, which is available for checkout through MCPL: “The Purpose Based Library-Finding Your Path to Survival, Success and Growth.”
Rinehart said Potter is credited with “bringing the library into the 21st century.” He’s widely known throughout the system as the person who created the first Mid-Continent website in 1995. He also updated the system to the current website, MyMCPL.org, which allows patrons 24-hour access to materials from music to videos to e-books and traditional books. The system also allows for inter-library loans, meaning patrons can access materials from any branch in the library system. Rinehart spoke to the importance of the website when she said, “Otherwise, we’d still be stamping books with little pads,” she said.
As director, Potter has held positions from shelving books to mid-management and opening the Midwest Genealogy Center, which he was charged with while the library’s assistant director. The center is the largest public genealogy facility in the nation, said MCPL Community Relations and Planning Director Jim Staley.
Potter said his initial plans are to “do nothing and hope it’s everything everyone says.” He described a “dirty secret about working in libraries.you don’t get to read books you want to read,” he said, which might account for some of his retirement time. However, Potter said, “I’ve been working since I was 10 years old (as a child, he helped with his mom’s home-based baking business).”
Potter said he may focus on volunteer and service projects. Potter said he “certainly has a lot of time to do a lot of good in the community and the world.”