Library patrons use computers in the poshly renovated South Wing of the main branch of the Detroit Public Library. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
Detroit— Administrators say they take pride in the "family atmosphere" at the Detroit Public Library, but questions of nepotism, cronyism and mismanagement are dogging the cash-strapped system.
Three top library executives have had family members on the payroll, including until recently the human resources director's two children. The system gave a library commissioner's nonprofit agency $15,000 to sponsor neighborhood events. And another commissioner's daughter was given a $150,000 event planning contract in 2009.
Employee unions question that contract because she didn't have a college degree and was hired by the woman her father would support two months later for the vacant executive director's job.
Hiring relatives is so common at the library that about one in six staffers have relatives among the 376 employees, according to an internal review obtained by The Detroit News.
"This nepotism and cronyism has led to the downfall of the city," said Reginald Amos, a retired Detroit Fire Department deputy chief and resident who said the family hires remind him of ex-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's administration. "It's the friends-and-family plan. It's not about serving the people. It's self-serving."
The revelations come amid increasing questions about the library system's leadership, which doled out a 6 percent raise to union employees over the past two years but now faces an $11 million shortfall that could mean massive branch closures and layoffs.
Human resource director Trinee Moore argued that their staffers are qualified and that safeguards have been implemented to prevent preferential treatment. A committee of managers makes hires, and layoffs come by seniority, she said.
Moore said she had no role in the hiring of her children, and the library isn't different than other workplaces where employees refer relatives.
"As a rule, it's always been a point of fact that when a family member gets on with Chrysler or Ford or the library or with the city, they'd tell their family," Moore said. "Generally if you are an excellent person, you are probably keeping company with excellent people."
Library lacked policy
But others, including Commissioner Russ Bellant, said hiring relatives has created problems. The system didn't adopt a nepotism policy until December 2009 — after a flap involving a contract to plan events for the library's teen center was given to Erin Thomas, the 36-year-old daughter of Commissioner Edward Thomas.
"The commissioners weren't told," said Bellant, who called the contract inappropriate. "It wasn't brought before the commission. We don't know the conversations that led to that contract. But the most charitable thing you could say is it showed extremely poor judgment."
Edward Thomas said he had no role in his daughter's contract and argued that, at the time, there was no policy requiring him to disclose it.
"I didn't think there was a need (to disclose the contract)," said Thomas, who is now commission president. "We never had a policy on anything like that."
Rules now require the Board of Commissioners to vote on all contracts and the hiring of commissioners' relatives.
Erin Thomas started with the library in 2007 as an entry-level clerk earning about $9 an hour. But after unions complained that Thomas was working outside of her classification, Deputy Director Juliet Machie offered Thomas a contract position in March 2009 earning up to $150,000 over two years to plan events.
But some question Erin Thomas' qualifications, given a similar event planner position required a bachelor's degree, said Michael Wells, president of UAW Local 2200 that represents about 120 library staffers.
Erin Thomas currently is several credits shy of her bachelor's degree at Michigan State University, her father said.
But in her resume submitted to the library when she interviewed for other staff positions in June 2008, Erin Thomas indicated she graduated from Michigan State University in May 2007.
A library spokesman said Thomas corrected the information in an interview the same day. "During the interview process, when asked if she graduated, that's when she disclosed she had a few credits left," spokesman A.J. Funchess said.
Machie said Erin Thomas was qualified and was "exceptional" in the contract job. The News tried to reach Erin Thomas through her father, but she didn't return a call for comment.
Daughter's contract an issue
Edward Thomas said the contract became political because Machie, the deputy director, was up for the director's job. He supported Machie's candidacy, but Bellant backed Jo Anne Mondowney, who got the job in May 2009.
"Whether my daughter had a contract or not, I was still going to support Juliet for the executive director's job," said Thomas, who added that several union leaders have family members working for the library.
But Wells said Thomas, a retired Wayne County judge, should have recused himself from the director's vote. "A judge knows that you can't make a decision on a case when you have an interest in it," Wells said.
Carla Scott, a Detroit school board member who was a library commissioner when the director was chosen, said Thomas wasn't upfront about his daughter's contract.
"She may have deserved it, but how does no one else know about it?" Scott asked.
The library ended Erin Thomas' contract early in October 2010 because of cost-cutting. She made $98,400.
Another perception problem
Union leaders cited another perception problem on the commission: $15,000 in library cash was given in 2008 and 2009 to a nonprofit headed by library commissioner Luther Keith, who is a former editor at The News.
Keith defended the donation, saying it was strictly a sponsorship for Neighborhoods Day, an annual community event run by the nonprofit he heads, ARISE Detroit! Keith said library administration suggested the donation, not him. In return, the library's logo was placed on banners, T-shirts and other promotional items.
"They didn't give the money to me," Keith said. "No one raised it as a conflict."
But Wells, who said his union is concerned in general about wasteful library spending, said it's another example of why he thinks the library needs a "more independent board."Other library executives with relatives on staff include Machie, whose brother makes $72,900 a year as an information systems project leader. And the brother-in-law of Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cromer is a computer technician making $64,300 a year.
Cromer, who previously served as a consultant, said his brother-in-law was hired before he went full time in 2003. Machie was on staff before her brother, but said she had no involvement in his hiring.
The daughter of Moore, the human resource director, is a customer support assistant who makes about $37,000 a year and Moore's son was an entry-level clerk making about $8 an hour until he left the library last year. The daughter was hired in early 2008 while Moore was a library consultant. Moore had become human resource director when her son was hired. Moore said her college graduate kids were overqualified for the jobs.
Wells said Moore's children may have been qualified, but it creates potential conflicts.
"It makes it extremely difficult for you as the head of HR to administer discipline when your family members are on staff," Wells said.
Moore said no employees directly report to relatives.
Moore said she recused herself from coming up with the number of layoffs needed in her daughter's union earlier this year. Her daughter plans on leaving the library soon for another job."I feel like I have been a good steward of my responsibility," Moore said.
"(But) our children shouldn't be denied the opportunity just because we work here."