Changes promised at Chattanooga Public Library following critical audit

Changes promised at Chattanooga Public Library following critical audit

September 6th, 2014 by Joy Lukachick Smith in Local Regional News

Board members attend Friday's meeting with Chattanooga Public Library Director Corinne Hill, center, speaking about recent events affecting policies.

Board members attend Friday's meeting with Chattanooga Public...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Members of the Chattanooga Public Library board stood behind Director Corinne Hill on Friday but said they would make sweeping policy changes after audit findings that officials mismanaged thousands of dollars during national and worldwide trips to promote the library.

Corinne Hill said she will suspend Assistant Director Nate Hill (no relation) and that Systems Administrator Meg Backus will resign at the end of October. City Auditor Stan Sewell's audit report said both employees were reported to the state for possible fraud.

But Corinne Hill told the board she has repaid her own overcharges and cleared her name.

"This happened on my watch and it is time for us to move on, which means I am fully prepared and committed to improving the daily operations of this library," she told the board.

Sewell's report, released to city officials last week, found excess reimbursements of nearly $3,000 to Corinne Hill, Nate Hill and Backus. The report also said Nate Hill and Backus took multiple paid speaking and consultant jobs while on library time and took unreported vacation leave. When questioned, Backus gave false statements to the auditor and deleted relevant documents, Sewell reported.

The findings also found that the library lacks substantive travel policies and procedures and that its governing board -- formed in 2011 when the library came fully under city control -- lacks checks and balances and never adopted bylaws.

At Friday's special called meeting, the board formed two committees: one to enact bylaws the board has been considering for two years and one to bring travel and personnel policies in line with Chattanooga's policies.

Corinne Hill told the board that after she met with the city auditor in December she changed the policy for requesting travel reimbursement by the city. She said she had allowed her staff to be reimbursed by the city and nonprofit support group Friends of the Library for different items on a single trip. But she said that practice caused confusion and led to double reimbursements.

The audit showed that Corinne Hill was doubly reimbursed for a trip to Denmark and was overpaid $972. On a trip to Chicago, Nate Hill had a duplicate reimbursement for airfare and was overpaid $400. And while both were alerted to the errors in February, the auditors couldn't find evidence the money had been repaid to the library.

Corinne Hill apologized to the board for not reimbursing the money immediately and for not insisting that Nate Hill do the same.

Someone in the audience asked the board whether Corinne Hill's trips to international conferences were excessive and whether they directly helped the library. Board Chairman James Kennedy defended the trips, saying they have increased the Chattanooga Library's presence worldwide.

The library has received worldwide attention since Corinne Hill was hired in 2012 and made sweeping changes, including turning the fourth floor into a creative hub with 3-D printers, laser cutters and and a "zine lab" for independent publishing. Nate Hill and Backus were her first hires.

Representatives from cities across the country have visited Chattanooga to copy the ideas Corinne Hill and her staff introduced, and in January she was named national librarian of the year for 2014.

While Corinne Hill said she regrets not looking more closely at the business side of the operation, she defended her choice to change the operations of the library.

"I wanted to makes sure this community found us relevant," she said. "Because I could have the best business practices in town but if nobody came here, who cares?"

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.


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