Documents show EPL officials wanted to terminate Lesley Williams for years


Daily file photo by Nathan Richards

The outside of Evanston Public Library. Recently released documents show EPL officials have been calling for the termination of Lesley Williams, a popular librarian, for years.

Kristina Karisch, Assistant City Editor

Evanston Public Library officials have been calling for the termination of popular librarian Lesley Williams for years, according to documents removed Friday from the city’s online public records portal.

The documents show library officials criticizing Williams in a 2015 performance evaluation of EPL director Karen Danczak Lyons. Williams, a 21-year popular librarian, faces possible termination as head of adult services after criticizing the library in a Facebook post last month.

Following a Freedom of Information Act request made by Evanston Patch on April 27, the city released three documents that amounted to more than 4,000 pages. The documents remained online for weeks before a resident alerted the city that they contained portions of Danczak Lyons’ performance review, City Clerk Devon Reid told The Daily.

Reid said personnel files are not subject to disclosure under public records laws and that the edited documents will be reposted by Monday.

The 2015 performance evaluation — obtained by The Daily before it was taken down — praises Danczak Lyons for her work, but expresses concern about Williams and disappointment she had not yet been fired. Williams came under fire in 2014 after canceling a planned event with Palestinian-American journalist Ali Abunimah, documents show.

Williams said Danczak Lyons told her to cancel and postpone Abunimah’s appearance because there was no event with an opposing perspective planned. In 2014, Danczak Lyons told The Daily the email Williams sent Abunimah to cancel the event was inaccurate.

“I never specified we wanted Jewish speakers,” Danczak Lyons told The Daily in 2014. “(We wanted) discussions with a variety of credible speakers that could present different perspectives.”

An unidentified board member who completed the 2015 evaluation said the “Williams situation remains festering and unresolved to the disappointment of the Board,” while another remarked on her “continued adversarial and incorrigible attitude.”

“My only concern here is (Danczak Lyons’) reluctance to let Lesley Williams go,” a board member wrote. “We met with her in an (executive) session, at her insistence, and she told us that she was going to do that. This session on (sic) was in September, and (Williams) is still in the staff.”

Another batch of documents contain a March 9 email from EPL board vice president Margaret Lurie that was sent to Danczak Lyons.

“(Williams) is clearly the thorn in our sides, but at this point, unless she really oversteps her role, we are stuck, agreed?” Lurie wrote in the email.

Danczak Lyons responded the next day: “Agreed.”

Both Lurie and Danczak Lyons could not be reached for comment, though library officials have previously declined to comment on matters of personnel.

Williams said she was grateful the documents had been released and that they confirmed suspicions the library had wanted to “get rid” of her for years.

She also refuted the claims stating she had exhibited an “adversarial and incorrigible attitude,” saying she was following American Library Association guidelines on how to bring programming to the library.

“(They) show a clear pattern of hostility and collusion toward me on the part of the board and the library director,” Williams said. “It’s clear from the email that they were looking for an excuse to get rid of me, again for political reasons.”

On Saturday, supporters of Williams launched a petition addressed to Mayor Steve Hagerty to “support Lesley Williams and equity in the Evanston Public Library.” By Sunday evening, it had received more than 200 signatures.

“Lesley is someone who dares to question the status quo … someone who wants to hold our public institutions accountable,” the petition said. “If Evanston is to live up to our progressive values, we need MORE people like her, not fewer.”

Hagerty could not be reached for comment.

Williams said she hopes Hagerty responds to residents’ calls for equity by looking at existing library policies. The new mayor will nominate three members to the board when the seats expire later this month.

“The mayor needs to listen to what many members of the community are saying about the very clear lack of equity in library collections, personnel and services,” Williams said. “There needs to be a complete, top-to-bottom look at the library’s (policies).”

Williams previously received a 15-day suspension — for which the reason is still unknown — in April but returned to work May 24. Her current suspension and disciplinary hearing are tied to a Facebook post she made late last month. In the post, Williams shared pictures of bilingual flyers that advertised the library’s commitment to “free & equal access for all.”

“Some organizations are true leaders in practicing equity and inclusion,” Williams wrote in the post. “And some prefer to post signs on their bulletin boards.”

The Facebook post violated policies regarding a healthy work environment and the use of information technology by a city official, according to an EPL email posted online by a supporter of Williams. The email also said the post defamed or damaged the library and its reputation.

“You have exhibited poor work performance, gross incompetence, conduct unbecoming, and repeated failure to work in accordance with City policies,” the email said.

Williams previously said she stands by her decision to make the Facebook post, and hopes her action will increase equity across Evanston.

Decisions from Friday’s disciplinary hearing will be announced in the coming week, Williams said.

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Twitter: @kristinakarisch