Legal complaint claims Great Neck Library board violated bylaws in filling vacancy

Legal complaint claims Great Neck Library board violated bylaws in filling vacancy
A legal complaint was filed against the Great Neck Library for their handling of trying to fill a a vacancy left by a former trustee. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)

A legal complaint was filed against the Great Neck Library Board of Trustees for filling a board vacancy in a way that allegedly violated library bylaws.

According to the complaint, which was submitted in Nassau County Supreme Court by Brian Stolar of Meyer Suozzi English & Klein PC, legal representative for the plaintiffs, the library violated bylaws by appointing someone to the board not recommended by the Nominating Committee. The vacancy on the board was a result of former Trustee Chelsea Sassouni resigning from the position, effective Sept. 14.

The complaint, filed on Sunday, lists library Trustee Barry Smith as one of the plaintiffs and five other trustees, Weihua Yan, Liman Mimi Hu, Kathleen Gold, Scott Sontag and Josephine Mairzadeh, along with the library itself as the defendants.

Other plaintiffs include the library’s Nominating Committee Chairperson Marietta DiCamillo and Secretary Marianna Wohlgemuth, recently elected Trustee Donald Panetta and Village of Great Neck resident David Zielenziger.

According to the library bylaws, the Nominating Committee is required to (and did, according to the complaint) “submit to the Board the names of two or more members of the Association from which the Board shall elect one Trustee to act until the next annual meeting at which time the membership shall elect a Trustee to fill the unexpired term,” referring to the Great Neck Library Association.

According to court documents, the committee provided the board with two names to be considered for the board vacancy on Oct. 21, less than 60 days after the resignation became effective, and in compliance with the bylaws.

Panetta was one of the names initially submitted by the committee, according to the documents, but became ineligible to fill the vacancy after he won another seat on the board in the library’s general election in October.

The committee then submitted Zielenziger’s name to replace Panetta as the second recommended candidate to fill the vacancy, with the other name not disclosed in the documents. According to the complaint, board members were “dissatisfied” with the proposed names, so the committee submitted another name for consideration.

DiCamillo, in an email to Blank Slate Media, backed the choices of potential candidates that were submitted to the board.

“The candidates put forth by the Nominating Committee for consideration of the Board of Trustees, for the replacement of seat vacated by Chelsea Sassouni, were selected based on their knowledge of the library; were open-minded; were experienced in fiscal matters; were perceptive concerning community needs; and were dedicated to maintaining a professional and congenial atmosphere that members of the public expect,” DiCamillo said.

“The Nominating Committee never enters the interview process with preconceived thoughts, keeps an objective mind and bases their selections solely on a candidate’s ability to represent library needs of a very diverse community of Greater Great Neck (including North New Hyde Park).”

Yan, the board president, said during a Dec. 21 public meeting that the board expressed its concerns about the nomination to the committee twice and was told by committee officials that the board should interview each of the people whose names were presented. Yan said the board told the committee that if nothing else was submitted before the 60-day deadline after Sassouni’s resignation, outlined in the library bylaws, the board would continue the search on its own.

Yan said  the board opened its own interview process on Nov. 29, which lasted until Dec. 3. On Dec. 2, he said, the board received another name from the committee, a person that also applied for the position through the board’s process. He also said five members of the board were present when 14 interviews with “qualified candidates very objectively” occurred on Dec. 13, 15 and 17.

Ultimately, he said, board members were pleased with their nomination of Jenni Lurman to fill the vacancy on the board for the remainder of Sassouni’s term for the next year, which would expire at the library’s annual meeting in January 2023.

 Smith attempted to make a motion to table Lurman’s appointment, but no other board member seconded it.

The decision to push forward with the appointment was met with strong opposition from community members during the virtual meeting on Dec. 21. After pleas from residents to postpone the appointment until a future meeting, the board approved the appointment, 5-1, with Smith being the only member in opposition. 

Members of the public became more verbose and began to sharply criticize board members, claiming they did not act in the public’s best interest.

Hu said the board had reverted to abiding by New York state law, which supersedes the bylaws, due to the Nominating Committee’s recommendation of a “divisive” candidate, which,Hu claimed was a violation of the bylaws.

“Instead of abiding by the bylaws and appointing one of the Library members to the then vacant position, and despite the overwhelming will of the membership voting down the Board’s attempt to eliminate the Nominating Committee and its authority and the specific, straightforward and plainly evident provisions of the bylaws, the Defendant Trustees decided to substitute the Board for the Nominating Committee by commencing its own interview and recommendation process,” the complaint said.

According to the complaint, Lurman has since resigned from the trustee position. Smith, in his affidavit, said he was informed the board was planning to once again try and fill that trustee position during the library’s annual reorganizational meeting that was scheduled for Tuesday night, but has since been postponed.

Board officials did not immediately say why the meeting was canceled, but Hu said that “multiple trustees have been threatened and harassed” in an email to Blank Slate Media.

Efforts to reach other board members, Stolar, or the board’s legal representation, Bee Ready Fishbein Hatter & Donovan LLP, for further comment were unavailing.

Stolar, in a cease and desist letter submitted last month, said the board “decided to veer off course” from adhering to the bylaws by trying to eliminate the committee in the October election. Although 526 people voted to eliminate the committee and 391 in favor of keeping it, the vote was below the 67 percent required to pass.

Smith, in his affidavit, said the library faces “imminent irreparable harm” if the board appoints someone to serve outside of the bylaws’ jurisdiction. 

“During the pendency of this proceeding, it is urgently necessary that the court prohibit the board from appointing or electing any person to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Trustee Sassouni (and the subsequent resignation of Jenni Lurman) unless the proposed appointee was among the names proposed by the Nominating Committee,” Smith said.

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