Lexington library board fires chief executive Kathleen Imhoff

jcheves@herald-leader.comJuly 16, 2009 

The Lexington Public Library fired chief executive Kathleen Imhoff on Wednesday after months of controversy about her spending of public funds.

The library board of trustees voted unanimously to terminate Imhoff's contract — set to run until June 2011 — in 30 days. In the meantime, the board has placed her on paid administrative leave.

After a two-hour, closed-door meeting, board Chairman Larry Smith declined to say why Imhoff was fired, citing a clause in her contract that allows her to be terminated without cause given 30 days notice.

Smith mentioned an ongoing city audit of library finances and computers, which he suggested could provide answers when a report is released.

"We think it's in the best interests of the library to move forward," Smith said. "It took a lot of discussion. There were a lot of opinions involved. Terminating someone is not easy."

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.

Imhoff, hired in 2003, declined to comment after the board meeting. But her attorney said that she has been treated wrongly, and that she will sue the library to get what's owed her.

Imhoff is entitled to her $137,035 annual salary and benefits for the remaining two years of her contract, Richard Getty said. While her employment contract may state that she can be fired without cause, it does not say that can happen without her receiving compensation, he said.

"They've left her with no alternative but to protect her legal rights by taking the step of litigation," Getty said.

Rushed out the door

Getty criticized how the board handled Imhoff's firing. The board held four closed-door meetings before firing her without explanation, allowing rumors to damage her reputation, he said.

The board even tried to cheat Imhoff out of her final day at her office in the Central Library, Getty said.

Immediately after the vote, the board told her she could return for a full day on Thursday to collect her things and say goodbye to the staff, he said. An hour later, he said, she was told to pack fast and clear out by noon.

Getty said that Imhoff was a smart, hard-working manager, but that the board rushed her out the door in an overreaction to escape critical newspaper stories and pressure from city leaders.

The library board is appointed by the mayor, who last week replaced its longtime chairman and vice chairman with new members, citing a need for fresh perspectives.

"I am absolutely baffled and amazed at the way this whole thing has played out," Getty said. "I think they just didn't want to deal with the controversy anymore. They wanted to be in a position to say, 'Hey, look, we did something.'"

Defending herself

When the Herald-Leader began publishing stories about credit card spending at the library — including Imhoff's trips to Europe and Africa and frequent meals at expensive Lexington restaurants — then-board Chairman Burgess Carey and other board members defended Imhoff's leadership while agreeing that reforms were needed.

Carey said that he would begin to monitor Imhoff's monthly credit card bills. The library revoked most of the 24 credit cards that were issued to library employees — although not Imhoff's. Spending limits would be placed on gifts and other items, Carey said.

However, Imhoff fiercely defended her actions.

For example, she contacted the Web site American Libraries, which wrote a story in which Imhoff described the Herald-Leader's stories as inaccurate. The library board was angry at the newspaper and would "consider further action," Imhoff said.

When Carey learned about the Web story, he asked Imhoff to contact the Web site and make clear that she did not speak for the library board. "That didn't come from me, and I'm the chairman," he said at the time.

On Wednesday, just a few hours before she was fired, Imhoff sent an e-mail to the library board, employees, volunteers and dozens of others connected to the library, defending her record against what she considered unfair newspaper stories.

"Having to implement fiscal controls concerning salaries, curtail(ing) automatic raises and developing a board-initiated pay-for-performance plan with a staff unused to change was a challenge," Imhoff wrote.

"It is understandable that these financial changes were not popular with staff, but they were necessary to achieve economic stability for the library," Imhoff wrote.

"Many changes have taken place in the six years since I became the executive director of this system, including two new libraries," she added. "Some of these changes have been easier than others. I am proud of our accomplishments and excellent service you provide. It is the outstanding staff that truly make this library what it is today."

Smith, the board chairman, said the board has not made plans for finding Imhoff's replacement, but it expects to shortly.

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