Somerset County Library Commissioners faced an angry and emotional crowd at their meeting Wednesday, as about 60 patrons, volunteers and employees urged the commission to undo the dismissal of the branch's director and circulation supervisor.
Many in the crowd sported blue "Bring Larry Back!" buttons, in reference to the library's circulation supervisor Lawrence Sapienza, dismissed along with director Elaine Whiting on April 10 after a month-long imbroglio stemming from a change in policies regarding volunteer help at the Warren branch.
"This whole mess and the dismissal of the very necessary administrators was mishandled," said Sylvia Gerken, longtime library volunteer and member of the library's advisory board. "April 10 has a black mark, which I hope can be erased—but you need to bring Larry back."
The stream of supporters praised Sapienza as a selfless and dedicated employee, who went out of his way to help others. Several volunteers noted his interest in their well-being, and his love of the library.
"Larry was always the first one to offer a volunteer form to someone; he was always the first one to step up," said volunteer Ashay Katakam, of Green Brook.
The commission members did not comment on the situation, and prior to opening the meeting to public comment, Somerset County Library System Director Art Carlson, of Hillsborough, noted the commission does not have "any say in the day-to-day operations of the library, including personnel matters."
But Sapienza has filed an appeal of his dismissal, and has made his battle public. Documents Sapienza has show a series of events that began in March, when Whiting told him the library would be limiting volunteers to cleaning shelves and "shelf reading" (arranging books in proper order on the shelves) as part of a series of new staff requirements, a recommendation by SCLS Assistant Director Keith McCoy. The change was being implemented, in part, to separate the volunteers from patrons' confidential information.
Over the next few weeks, Sapienza says he and Whiting reviewed the plans, and prepared a statement that would be distributed to the volunteers. When volunteers were told of the changes on March 19, many complained to library staff members (Whiting was on a vacation at the time), and Sapienza forwarded some of the volunteers' complaints to SCLS Director Brian Auger.
By the time Whiting returned in early April, the situation was very muddied—many volunteers believed they were being told they weren't needed at the library at all; others were angry at being limited to menial tasks.
A meeting called for April 10 at 4 p.m., ostensibly to discuss the deteriorating situation, instead led to the firings, and was followed by a staff meeting announcing the personnel changes.
Sapienza was dismissed for allegedly "exercising poor judgement with the communiciation and implementation" of the changes; drafting and distributing aletter to the volunteers "essentially terminating their service"; undermining his supervisor's authority with regard to the changes; and for not communicating "in any manner with the Library Administration when it became obvious that the situation was escalating..."
Sapienza knows his employment with the county is "at will," meaning he can be dismissed at any time, but he does have the right to appeal his dismissal, which he filed this week. His repsonse includes rebuttal to the four charges, with emails and documents supporting his argument.
But perhaps the strongest argument for his appeal is the contingent of supporters who attended the commission's meeting and may take their battle to tonight's Township Committee meeting. While the Township Committee also does not oversee the operations of the library, the township owns the building and has considerable sway on the matter.
As for Sapienza, he said he is "filled with humility" at the outpouring of support.
This article was edited to correct the spelling of Ashay Katakam's name.