Library director threatens to sue if fired

jcheves@herald-leader.comJuly 15, 2009 

An attorney for Kathleen Imhoff, chief executive of the Lexington Public Library, warned Tuesday that Imhoff will sue if the library board fires her without paying the $137,035 annual salary through the end of June 2011 that her contract guarantees.

The library board has met three times in closed session to discuss Imhoff's future but has not made a decision.

"She has an enforceable contract, and I expect them to honor it," said Richard Getty, Imhoff's attorney.

"They have no grounds to let the lady go for anything that would be for cause," Getty said. "If they are foolish enough to let her go, then they would need to honor her contract ... or they can expect litigation."

In April, the Herald-Leader detailed more than $134,000 in spending by Imhoff on travel, meals, gifts and other items over five years, with little oversight.

Most of the library's $15 million annual budget comes from Fayette County property taxes.

On Wednesday, the board plans to meet behind closed doors again with its attorneys to discuss Imhoff's performance. Imhoff and Getty have not been included in the meetings, but Getty said he has talked to board members and lawyers by phone.

Larry Smith, chairman of the library board, said it might be "a couple more weeks" before the board acts. He did not name Imhoff as the subject of the meetings, saying only that they are discussing a library employee.

Smith said the board wants a report from city auditors, who are examining the library's finances and computers and who interviewed Imhoff. According to the city, the auditors have not completed their report.

The board — which is appointed by the mayor — hired Imhoff in 2003 on a four-year contract that it renewed in 2007 for four more years.

The contract permits the board to fire Imhoff for reasons including fraud, felony conviction, illegal drug use, misappropriation of library resources, dishonesty, embezzlement or repeated failure to follow the board's directions.

Getty said none of that applies to Imhoff, who is "a competent, forceful woman who has done a good job for that library board."

"I would hope the board would recognize the good services she has given them," Getty said. "They ought to be thanking her for it rather than threatening to take employment action adverse to her interests."

Mixed reviews

In 2005, long before Imhoff's spending was examined, the board paid local management consultant Marilyn Clark several thousand dollars to evaluate Imhoff's performance and make recommendations.

Imhoff, two board members and several dozen library employees rated her leadership abilities.

Overall, Imhoff rated herself highly, but everyone else, on average, ranked her less than favorably.

In the anonymous-comments section, Imhoff's superiors and peers expressed mixed opinions about her. A board member described her as "very highly qualified and motivated," but advised her to work more effectively with her staff.

Employees' comments were overwhelmingly critical. They said she would "bully and humiliate staff," engaged in "unwise use of funds," and "only has her personal interests in mind."

"Kathleen is a difficult person to work both with and for," wrote one person who reported directly to her.

"At times I feel we are working with a dual personality because she IS articulate and HAS connected with community groups and made (the library) more recognizable," one of her peers wrote. "But at what cost? If employees feel berated and feel like they are walking on eggshells and never know if they are next in line for verbal abuse or humiliation in front of others, then all the good P.R. that she is exhibiting in the community seems bittersweet."

The board told Imhoff to spend the next year with Clark to learn about listening, building trust, respecting colleagues and other skills. Clark told the board in a 2006 letter that Imhoff took her sessions seriously.

That year, the board awarded Imhoff a 3 percent raise, taking her salary to $131,335. The next year, it renewed her contract through 2011.

'Ruffled some feathers'

On June 3, the Herald-Leader obtained Clark's report as part of Imhoff's personnel file, which it requested under the Kentucky Open Records Act.

Previously, the library board had refused to provide the report, saying it would embarrass Imhoff if it were made public.

On Tuesday, Getty said that the newspaper was not entitled to receive the report, and that the fact that it did is proof that people at the library want to damage Imhoff's reputation.

"All of the issues raised in the Clark report were, in fact, corrected," Getty said. "Yes, she ruffled some feathers at the outset. They brought in a management consultant to help her learn how things are done in Lexington."

Smith, the board chairman, said the library did not intend to sabotage Imhoff by releasing the report. On the advice of attorneys, the board concluded that the newspaper was entitled to it, he said.

Last week, Mayor Jim Newberry replaced the library board's longtime chairman, Burgess Carey, and vice chairman, Joseph Miller, with two new people, saying it's time for "a fresh viewpoint" on the board.

"As I have already said, I am very concerned about some of the financial decisions made at the library," Newberry said Tuesday. "But library personnel decisions must be made by the board."

Reach John Cheves at (859) 231-3266.

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