Library board OKs back pay rather than face lawsuit

photo The main branch of the Chattanooga Public Library is located on Broad Street between 10th and 11th streets in downtown Chattanooga.
photo Library director Corinne Hill attends a Chattanooga Public Library board meeting Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014, in Chattanooga.
photo Meg Backus and Nate Hill

For fear of getting sued, the Chattanooga Public Library's board moved to give four weeks of back pay to a former top staffer who resigned following a critical audit.

"I'm afraid we will be criticized for two things," board Chairman Jim Kennedy told his colleagues Friday. "One for spending library money, good money after bad, so to speak, but the argument on the other side is, if we ever get to argue it, that we are saving a lot of money if we're able to settle this thing right here and now."

The board then voted to pay Meg Backus, the library's former systems administrator, $5,000.

Their decision was made after Library Director Corinne Hill admitted she told Backus in September she would accept her resignation and let her work for two more months. But three days later, Hill dismissed Backus directly from her job.

Hill's statement contradicts what she told board members at the Sept. 23 board meeting, that she didn't recall promising to let Backus continue working at the library.

Backus claims she submitted the resignation letter after Hill gave her an ultimatum -- leave on her own or face a public hearing and likely termination. The conversation took place the night before the library board met Sept. 5 to publicly discuss City Auditor Stan Sewell's findings.

Sewell's report found excessive reimbursements of nearly $3,000 to Corinne Hill, Assistant Library Director Nate Hill and Backus. The report also found that Nate Hill and Backus took multiple paid speaking and consultant jobs while on library time and took unreported vacation. When questioned, Backus gave false statements to the auditor and deleted relevant documents, Sewell reported.

But Backus told the board in a letter that it was standard practice for employees to take comp time at a later date if they worked more than 40 hours in a week. When Sewell began to look at the library's practices, Backus said she gave false statements to protect the library.

"I put myself in a position to take the blame for careless management practices," Backus wrote.

Sewell also discovered that the library's board -- which was re-established in 2011 when the library came fully under city control -- didn't establish bylaws or have controls in place to monitor spending.

Next week, Mayor Andy Berke has the opportunity to replace five board members whose terms have expired. The City Council agenda for Tuesday shows that Berke has asked the council to re-affirm four current board members -- Mai Bell Hurley, Tom Griscom, Herb Cohn and Karen McMahon.

Berke's spokeswoman, Lacie Stone, said the mayor's office decided to reappoint the four because of their passion about the library and their service on the board.

"There is no doubt they've helped improve the Public Library for our entire community," Stone said. "And they are committed to putting the proper policies and controls in place to ensure the Library is successful moving forward."

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

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