Last week, after three years leading Franklin County’s library system, Anne Birchwell stepped down as county library director.
In a telephone interview Monday, she cited health issues as the reason for her resignation.
Birchwell served for three years after replacing former director Glenda Ondracek, who left after controversy arose over management of the Carrabelle branch of the Franklin County Public Library.
Denise Butler, former chair of the Franklin County Library advisory board, said an emergency board meeting is planned for Friday to discuss a replacement for Birchwell. She said it was possible Eugenia Butler, who works as an assistant librarian, would fill the position temporarily.
Also on Friday, county commissioners will meet for their end-of-year meeting at 9 a.m., and discuss advertising for a new director.
At the county meeting Sept. 20, Carrabelle’s library was a prominent subject of discussion.
County Coordinator Michael Morón asked commissioners for permission to form a committee, together with County Attorney Michael Shuler and the county’s outside legal counsel n labor issues, to assess the system at the Carrabelle Library because he had received many calls about labor issues and other concerns.
Birchwell did not appear at the county meeting, remaining in Eastpoint to keep the library branch open after two employees called in sick.
Carrabelle Branch Manager Tonya Chisholm, part-time employee Audrey Strange and library volunteer Sharon Rider were on hand at the county commission meeting, leaving Carrabelle’s library closed for the morning.
“We’re going to have to do something,” said Commissioner Cheryl Sanders. “They don’t have the proper staffing (at the Carrabelle Library). A lot of the volunteers are leaving. That don’t fall back on nobody’s shoulders but Ms. Birchwell.”
Commissioner William Massey, the county’s liaison to the library board, said “All the volunteers have walked out of the office.”
When asked Tuesday during a telephone interview if the Carrabelle library had recently lost many volunteers, Chisholm declined comment. Patrons of the library said they were not aware that volunteers had been lost.
Commissioners Smokey Parrish, Rick Watson and Noah Lockley spoke in support of Birchwell.
“You hire a library director, she’s at the top and everything else filters down,” said Parrish. “We need to support her and give her authority to run the library. The people who work under her need to respect her.”
He suggested Birchwell might need to spend more time in Carrabelle, and said he believed unattended children at the library might be an issue.
“The job of the library is not to babysit,” he said. “We need policies and procedures to tell the director what she’s supposed to do.”
Watson said the commission needed to be supportive of the library director and put her in a position to manage. He asked if it was possible to compare the number of users at each branch.
“When you have a director, she’s the boss. She runs the thing,” Lockley said. “(Other employees) have to get it together. Everybody needs to sit down and have a conversation. We need to get on the same page. All this bickering is (causing us to lose) volunteers. The library is necessary to the community and the county.”
Massey said, “We have more issues than is out here.”
Denise Butler, who addressed commissioners at the Sept. 20 meeting, said she is proud of both libraries and welcomes the prospect of a meeting to review operating policies.
She said that at the suggestion of the advisory board, Birchwell was spending half her time in Carrabelle. She said it is difficult to document the number of users at each library.
Butler said the advisory board studied a dozen other libraries’ policies on unattended children and there was a memo on their recommendations for Franklin County libraries in the commissioners’ packets.
Butler said most libraries do not allow children less than 12 years of age to visit the library unattended unless they are attending a specific supervised program.
Sharon Rider of Carrabelle described herself as county representative to Wilderness Coast Public Libraries, a cooperative of Franklin, Jefferson, and Wakulla counties that works to increase library resources for all three. She also said she has volunteered at the Carrabelle Library for 10 years.
Rider said she is embarrassed when attending Wilderness Coast Board meetings because Birchwell never discussed activities at the Carrabelle Branch. She said Birchwell did not support the staff at Carrabelle and that employees of the branch had not been reimbursed for $400 spent on the summer reading program because the Franklin County Library Advisory Board had advised Friends of the Library not to repay it.
“We need another full-time employee,” she said. “We need Audrey (Strange),” referring to an employee who currently works 29 hours a week at the Carrabelle Branch.
Sondra Furbee, chair of the Wilderness Coast Libraries Advisory Board, disputed Rider’s allegations in a telephone interview Monday.
She said Birchwell reported on both libraries but said she believed in some cases the director of the Carrabelle Branch failed to communicate with Birchwell.
Furbee praised Birchwell’s work as library director, citing her instituting the Music as a Second Language program.
In a telephone interview, Denise Butler said each branch had been allocated $100 for the summer reading program and the additional funds spent in Carrabelle were not repaid because they were spent without authorization from either Birchwell of the advisory board.
Butler said the libraries were short-staffed because the advisory board voluntarily gave up a part-time position several years earlier when the county was in financial straits.
“We have regretted that ever since and have repeatedly asked to have the position restored,” she said.
Butler said the advisory board had a policy of cross training all employees and having them travel between both libraries, but Chisholm has not visited Eastpoint or attended training even when the cost was covered by the Friends.
Speaking at the county meeting, Strange said the Carrabelle Branch needs another full-time employee, and asked that her hours be increased.
She said there were people who would volunteer at the library but nobody was available to manage them and they didn’t know how to offer their help. “When I am there I am serving the public,” she said.
Strange said she has worked extensively with children at the Carrabelle Branch and that she volunteered 80 hours of her time to assist with the summer reading program in addition to the 29 hours she works weekly.
The 2016-17 annual budget for the county libraries is a little over $315,000, about $7,000 more than the current year. Paid staff includes a director, branch manager, two full-time library assistants and one part-time library assistant.