RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

Topic: Trustees and First Amendment - 7/27/2020
Our municipal library recently revised its by-laws, and the revisions were approved by four of our...
Posted: Tuesday, July 28, 2020 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

Our municipal library recently revised its by-laws, and the revisions were approved by four of our five elected trustees. The fifth trustee abstained, and a month later sent the other board members an email saying he thought some of the language was in violation of First Amendment rights. He said three lawyers he talked with concurred.

The language in question were sentences that were copied verbatim from United For Libraries of the American Library Association's Code of Ethics. The same language was found in the New York State Library Trustees Manual, published by the New York Board of Regents.

Specifically, this is the language in the revised by-laws the trustee objected to:

"Trustees must distinguish clearly in their actions and statements between their personal philosophies and attitudes of those of the library, acknowledging and supporting the formal position of the Board even if they disagree."

"When any trustee acts in a manner that is not in the best interests of the library or in a cooperative nature of the Board, the Board Chair shall discuss the issue with the trustee in a direct and constructive manner. Specifically, if a trustee is negligent in attending meetings to an extent that affects the operation of the Board, if a trustee is actively working against the interest of the library or Board decisions, if a trustee acts or speaks on behalf of the Board on any matter without prior approval of the Board, or if a trustee or his/her family benefits personally from any library matters, that trustee may be asked to resign from the Board by majority vote of the trustees. The trustee will be asked to resign from the Board by letter from the Board Chair, and the trustee will be asked to send a letter of resignation to the Board Chair."

The trustee stated, "A public library, with publicly elected trustees cannot in any manner restrict the opinions or comments of any board member, whether in executive session or public meeting, nor can they be compelled to support the decisions of the majority. Such action is a direct infringement on the First Amendment to the Constitution."

QUESTION: Do the passages in quotes[1] from United for Libraries of the library's new by-laws infringe on First Amendment rights?



[1] NOTE:  The quoted language in the question does not exactly track the language in the 2018 NY Trustee Handbook, nor the United for Libraries Public Library Trustee Ethics Statement.  This reply addresses the language as quoted in the question and does not address the Handbook nor the United for Libraries Public Library Trustee Ethics Statement.

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

OPENING NOTE: Before I answer this question, I must stress: while some of it is identical, the quoted language in the question does not exactly track the language in the “2018 Handbook for Library Trustees in New York State,” nor the “United for Libraries Public Library Trustee Ethics Statement.”  This reply addresses the language as quoted in the question and does not address the precise language of the Handbook or the Ethics Statement.

Here are the words of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

I have been thinking a lot about these words, lately.  Business restrictions, social distancing, mask-wearing, protesting…2020 has evoked them, again and again.[1]

For this question, these strong, simple words are contrasted against the laws, regulations, and documents setting the terms of service of a public library board member. 

Let’s review those terms of service:

  • In the State of New York, public and private libraries are chartered by the NY State Education Department, as authorized by Education Law Section 255.
  • Whatever “type”[2] a Regents-chartered library is, it is always considered an “education corporation,”[3] to be governed, in part, by the Not-for-Profit Corporation Law.[4]
  • Although they are “education corporations,” public libraries bear some hallmarks of government entities: trustees must take oaths of office, most employees are part of the Civil Service, and there are significant, government-aligned requirements for procurement, audit, and accounting.
  • And of course, public libraries are subject to the Freedom of Information Law, the Open Meetings Law, the laws of their host municipalities, and the requirements of their own charters, bylaws, and policies.

This elaborate grid of law, regulation, and governance creates not only a public library--it creates the conditions for service by the public library trustee. 

Overarching all of this is the First Amendment, with its shifting assurances of unfettered freedom of speech and association. These shifting assurances include (but are not limited to): the right to say something (“free speech”), the right to not say something (no “compelled speech”), the freedom to attend meetings and gatherings (“association”), and the right to protest and advocate for your point of view (to “peaceably petition the government for redress of grievances”).

I say “shifting assurances,” because as is widely known, the tests for violations of the First Amendment depend on the context of the speech.[5]  Depending on the government interest to be advanced, or the nature of the speech impacted, the Supreme Court has created various tests to assess the Constitutionality of governmental actions impacting expression.[6]  One of those “contexts” is the voluntary acceptance of public library trustee service, which means agreeing to serve in alignment with certain laws. 

Here are just a few examples of how, even though every person on a public library board has First Amendment rights, speech and association of a trustee may be “limited” by law:

  • Trustees must take an Oath of Office,[7] which is arguably “compelled speech” required by the Education Law and the Public Officers Law;
  • Trustees must agree to follow the library’s “Conflict of Interest” policy, which is arguably “compelled speech” required by both the Not-for-Profit Corporation Law and the mandated Oath of Office;
  • Trustees must meet at least quarterly and if individual members do not attend, they may be removed, which is arguably “compelled association” required by the Education Law;
  • Trustees must not divulge communications designated by statute as confidential (whether or not they were discussed at executive session)[8] which is arguably “restricted speech” but is a condition confirmed in a number of judicial and Education Commissioner decisions;
  • Board members must abide by a library board’s code of ethics or risk being removed for misconduct.

Each of these examples is an instance where library trustees must curb or engage in behavior due to their special status as a public library trustee.  Each is a well-established condition, limiting or prescribing actions and expression, voluntarily undertaken as part of a valuable public service.

So, it is clear that library trustees must accept some conditions impacting their First Amendment rights, as a condition of board service.  But what about the language cited by the member’s question?

Most of the language in the question, as presented, does not lend itself to any concerns about the First Amendment; in fact, most of it does just the opposite.  By requiring a board member who is expressing a personal opinion to clarify that they do not speak for the full board or the institution, the language allows a trustee to express their personal position without jeopardizing their duty as a fiduciary who must act solely in the best interests of the institution.  Further, citing “the best interests of the library” and “the cooperative nature of the Board” emphasizes how a board must collaborate in good faith to achieve board decisions based solely in the trustees’ role as fiduciaries, which is consistent with both the Not-for-Profit Corporation law, and the cases construing duties of boards. 

In short, most of the language allows a trustee to perform their duties while exercising their First Amendment rights.

All that said, I have First Amendment concerns about the following phrases:

“…supporting the formal position of the Board even if they disagree.”

“…if a trustee is actively working against the interest of the library or Board decisions …”

 

What are my concerns with these phrases?

I have concerns because the meaning of these phrases, while evocative of a trustee’s “duty of loyalty”[9] to the library they serve, is ambiguous.   Ambiguity—by which I mean uncertainty about what exactly is being required--does not work well when free speech is implicated; and the uncertainty caused by a term being vague or overbroad creates risk. 

Here is how that risk plays out:

The following are some examples [10] of behavior that could be characterized as a trustee “actively working against the interest of the library or Board decisions…” that would violate the trustee’s duty of loyalty, and thus if punished with removal or censure, would NOT create First Amendment concerns:

  • A trustee knows it is in the best interest of the library to fix the roof in 2020, but publicly advocates waiting until a roofer they personally like (a neighbor or a drinking buddy) is free to perform the work in 2021;
  • A trustee knows that Candidate #1 has the best qualifications for the job, and therefore hiring Candidate #1 is in the best interest of the library, but thinks Candidate #2 will make their friends happier, so publicly endorses and votes for #2;
  • After appropriate due diligence and discussion with legal counsel during executive session, the board votes to buy the lot next door and to roll out news of the decision in a particular way.  A trustee, by virtue of information learned during the process, knows that the decision complies with all applicable laws and regulations, but still organizes a petition asserting the purchase is “illegal.”

Any of these, if proved, could be grounds for removing a trustee for “misconduct” and removal with no First Amendment defense to fight the removal. 

HOWEVER, as I said, the ambiguity of the quoted phrases, and some of their possible implications, concerns me.  To flip my examples around, here are some examples of behavior that could be characterized as a “trustee is actively working against the interest of the library or Board decisions…” that would NOT violate the duty of loyalty, and if punished with removal or censure, COULD create concerns under the First Amendment:

  • A trustee knows it is in the best interest of the library to fix the roof in 2020, but the only roofer to bid on the contract as authorized by the board has an established track record of defective work which is not being considered in the procurement process. In the days before the scheduled vote on the contract, the trustee publicly—and clearly only speaking for themselves—advocates a new procurement process and project timing that will attract roofers with a better record of performance;
  • A trustee sees that the new director, while excellent in many ways, does not have experience organizing a move to a new building, so despite a previous decision by the board to not hire a consultant to assist with the move, re-introduces a resolution to hire a consultant, and publicly (but respectfully) shares their reasons for the procurement;
  • A trustee, by virtue of information learned at executive session, has a genuine concern that a planned land purchase will not comply with all applicable laws and regulations, and reaches out to a private attorney to confidentially share their concerns.  Once those concerns are confirmed, the trustee shares the concerns in another executive session.  The board ignores the concerns, so the trustee—taking care to state that they are speaking personally and not for the board--THEN (without divulging attorney-client privileged information from the sessions) writes to the state Comptroller and the Attorney General for guidance, and writes a letter to the town paper stating simply that they hope to have time to gather further information.

If this seems complicated: it is.[11]  This is why there is a 132-page Handbook for library trustees, why there is currently a state-wide discussion about mandated training for library trustees, and why libraries have lawyers. 

Serving as a public library trustee is truly a role like no other.  To support the people in that role, if I were to word-smith the phrasing I have expressed concerns with, it would read (shown here with tracked changes):

"Trustees must distinguish clearly in their actions and statements between their personal philosophies and attitudes of those of the library, acknowledging and supporting as legitimate the formal actions position of the Board even if they disagree."

"When any trustee acts in a manner that is not in the best interests of the library or is inconsistent with thein a cooperative nature of the Board, the Board Chair shall discuss the issue with the trustee in a direct and constructive manner. Specifically, if a trustee is negligent in attending meetings to an extent that affects the operation of the Board, if a trustee is  engaging in misconduct or neglect of dutyactively working against the interest of the library or Board decisions, if a trustee acts or speaks on behalf of the Board on any matter without prior approval of the Board, or if a trustee or his/her family benefits personally from any library matters, that trustee may be asked to resign from the Board by majority vote of the trustees. The trustee will be asked to resign from the Board by letter from the Board Chair, and the trustee will be asked to send a letter of resignation to the Board Chair."


I suggest adding the words “misconduct” and “neglect of duty” because they come straight from Education Law 226(8), and as such, they are less prone to mis-interpretation.  On the flip side, I suggest removing the phrase, “actively working against,” because that phrase has no basis in law, regulation, or case law;[12] therefore, it risks mis-interpretation.  Since First Amendment decisions often turn on a phrase’s precise meaning (through definition or usage), these are more reliable choices.

To put this plainly: I am concerned that the language, as presented by the member’s question, creates the possibility of a public library chair thinking it is appropriate to tell a public library trustee: “The majority of the board voted to fix the roof this year, it’s a done deal, and now you have to keep quiet about it, or be removed from the board.”  This might not only violate the First Amendment, but could result in a course of action where the trustees are not acting in the best interests of the library.  That is a result to avoid.

At the same time, boards MUST feel empowered to remove members who are disruptive, who refuse to engage in the processes of deliberation and voting, who are disrespectful if they don’t get their own way, who improperly disclose confidential information, who have inappropriate relations with patrons or staff, or who violate board policy...so language emphasizing trustees’ responsibilities should be retained, and should be revisited often. 

Clarity about trustee rights and obligations, board training, and procedures creating a high-functioning board are always in the best interests of a library.

Thank you for a great question.  I hope this answer is helpful. 

CLOSING NOTE: At this closing section of the answer, I would like to re-iterate what was established in the first footnote: Although similar, the quoted language in the question does not exactly track the language in the “2018 Handbook for Library Trustees in New York State” nor the “United for Libraries Public Library Trustee Ethics Statement”.  This reply addresses the language as quoted in the question and does not address the precise language in the Handbook nor the Ethics Statement.



[1] And the year is only half over.

[2] Indian, free association, special district, school district, municipal.

[3] This governance is established through a daisy chain of Education Law sections: 255, 260, 226, and 216-a.

[4] The Education Law carves out several areas where the NFP law does not apply, including provisions related to trustee removal.

[7] By taking the Oath, a public library trustee has made the sworn commitment to “support the constitution of the United States, and the constitution of the State of New York, and … faithfully discharge the duties of the office of” serving on the board. 

[8] This is a tricky one.  A good “Committee on Open Government” opinion discussing the nuances of this can be found at https://docs.dos.ny.gov/coog/otext/o4258.htm.  Another illustration of the shifting conditions of board service is the discussion in a 2017 NY Commissioner of Education’s decision to not overturn the removal of a school board member who admittedly shared confidential information from an executive session, found here: http://www.counsel.nysed.gov/Decisions/volume57/d17147.

[9] It is worth noting that the phrase “duty of loyalty” does not appear in the Not-for-Profit Corporation Law, but is a creature of case law.

[10] All of these examples were picked to not otherwise be covered by required policies such as Sexual Harassment, Conflict of Interest, Whistleblower, confidentiality of topics duly discussed during Executive Session.

[11] These distinctions may be counter-intuitive to some people used to the operations of not-for-profit boards, which come with a high expectation of service with confidentiality.  A key distinction between library board work and the work of other entities governed by the Not-for-Profit corporation law is that library board work, by law, takes place before the scrutiny of the public.  So, while the “duty of loyalty” held by a typical not-for-profit board member would include not divulging board discussions and board votes, for chartered libraries, this activity takes place with an expectation of disclosure.

[12] To make this assertion, I checked for the phrase “actively working against” in all laws and regulations of New York, and the decisions of the NYS Commissioner of education.  The phrase has no application in any of those contexts, and appears in only six judicial decisions in New York (state and federal), none of which deal with libraries or not-for-profit board service.

Tags: Public Libraries, Trustees, COVID-19, Education Law Section 225, First Amendment, Public Officers Law

Topic: Policies for employees returning to work during COVID-19 - 5/21/2020
Public and Association libraries have questions about making policies creating conditions that mus...
Posted: Thursday, May 21, 2020 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

Public and Association libraries have questions about making policies creating conditions that must be met for library staff to return to work. Can they set policies that exclude vulnerable employees from being able to return to work? Can they set policies requiring non-vulnerable employees to return to work?

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

I had initially considered bundling this question with another submission about temporary actions or policies during COVID-19.  After all, both questions relate to policy, and a big goal of “Ask the Lawyer” is to provide legal information efficiently.

But after drafting that answer, and considering this question further, I did away with that notion.  The member has isolated an incredibly critical concern about employee/employer safety and authority.  It is a question that demands—and deserves—its own consideration.

But before we dive into the legalities, let's consider the practical implications of the member’s question.  Why would an employer want to “exclude vulnerable employees” from the work site? On the flip side, why would an employer want to set policies “requiring” a class of employee termed “non-vulnerable” to return to work?

Near as I can figure, the employer would want to do this to promote safety; a laudable goal.

However, that is not precisely the approach an employer in New York State is empowered to take.

Under both the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the New York Human Rights Law (“HRL”), employers are barred from discriminating against employees on the basis of real or perceived disability. This means that a NY employer who knows—or suspects—an employee might be particularly “vulnerable” (in this case, to COVID-19, but in other cases, due to pregnancy, or other medical conditions), is barred from simply labeling that employee “vulnerable” and taking steps to limit or change the terms of their employment on the basis of that conclusion. 

Rather, disability law is set up to empower employees to identify their needs, and then—under the most confidential circumstances possible—work with their employer to receive reasonable accommodations in consideration of those needs.

For example, a person whose medical history means that they might be more vulnerable to COVID-19 would work with their medical provider to provide documentation setting forth the risks and requesting a reasonable accommodation on the basis of those risks.

Employers are always welcome to let employees know the ways in which they may request accommodations. For instance, as libraries, museums, and archives consider limited or full reopening, employers can transmit those plans to their employees, and invite them to submit any request for accommodations based on the anticipated additional exposure to on-site visitors.

Think of it in the same way your institution might think of planning a large event that would invite the maximum number of people possible to your library or a rented venue. When planning for an event that will attract a large number of people, almost every institution will consider the need to accommodate people who use mobility devices. They might not contact those people in advance, even if they know they're coming…rather, the event will be planned with those accommodations in mind.

A good example of this, of relevance to the current COVID-19 crisis, is an employee with a respiratory disability.  As we know, people who have had respiratory illnesses in the past may be especially vulnerable to COVID-19 now.  These are people who may request accommodations—potentially including the ability to work off-site—based on a disability (a good list of accommodations for respiratory issues can be found here, on the Job Accommodation Network).

So, with all that being said, the answer to the member’s questions (Can they set policies that exclude vulnerable employees from being able to return to work? Can they set policies requiring non-vulnerable employees to return to work?) is: NOT AS SUCH.

However.

Employers can most certainly, when otherwise allowed by law, policy, contract, and Executive Order, require employees to return to work.  After that…

Once an employer is able/decides to re-open, in addition to any re-opening conditions, the employer must consider any requests for reasonable accommodations.  This could absolutely include modifications for those whose disabilities render them vulnerable to COVID-19.  The employer can even generally pre-plan to offer those modifications.  Or they can make working from home, or working on-site, optional (if the work can, in the sole determination of the employer, still be done).  But what they can’t do is pre-sort their employees by “vulnerability.”

There is one final critical point to make here, at this time (May 19, 2020).

Institutions re-opening as part of “NY Forward,” may be required to monitor the health of their employees in a way that typically would seem intrusive, and in some contexts, would even be illegal.

For example, here is a sample of the monitoring required under NY Forward, taken from a sample safety plan.  NOTE: this is taken from the NYForward’s Phase One Retail Summary, and is provided as an example, only:

Employees who are sick should stay home or return home, if they become ill at work.

[Employers must] [i]mplement mandatory health screening assessment (e.g. questionnaire, temperature check) before employees begin work each day and for essential visitors (but not customers), asking about (1) COVID-19 symptoms in past 14 days, (2) positive COVID-19 test in past 14 days, and/or (3) close contact with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 case in past 14 days.

Assessment responses must be reviewed every day and such review must be documented.

Employees who present with COVID-19 symptoms should be sent home to contact their health care provider for medical assessment and COVID-19 testing. If tested positive, employee may only return completing a 14-day quarantine. Employees who present with no symptoms but have tested positive in past 14 days may only return to work after completing a 14-day quarantine.

As stated, this is the procedure for Phase 1 re-opening of limited retail operations.  When will libraries subject to closure in NY be able to re-open under NY Forward, and under what terms?  As I write this, the New York Library Association, NYLA, has this on their COVID-19 page, which states[1]:

With input from our partners from the Public Library System Directors Organization (PULISDO), NYLA has been advocating for libraries to be permissively included in phase two.  This would allow libraries to be a phased re-opening processed, to be determined at the local level, as early as when their region enters Phase Two.  The decision on when, as well as the steps and procedures for re-opening, are best determined locally, and in conjunction with the local library system and county Department of Health.

This is a critical service to association and public libraries by NYLA, and every board and director should be monitoring this site for updates.

Of course, some libraries may have determined that the current workforce restrictions don’t apply to them at all (that they are exempt right along with school districts and local governments).  And it is possible some libraries and museums, affiliated with larger institutions, will not be able to open until their region hits “Phase Four” (covering educational institutions).  And it may be that by the point libraries are given the go-ahead, the emergency has abated to the point where monitoring of employees won’t be required. 

But any library contemplating opening, in addition to being ready to consider ADA accommodations for those more vulnerable to COVID-19, needs to be considering these possible employee monitoring requirements, as well as the need to adopt any NY Forward-required Safety Plan, or similar documentation showing they are taking defined, affirmative steps to protect employee and public safety.

Public and association libraries developing the policies they need to re-open have a large, complex task before them.  Thank you for a question that explores a critical consideration of that work.



[1] Just to emphasize: NYLA is a critical resource at this time and all libraries should be monitoring this page daily for updates.

Tags: COVID-19, Emergency Response, Employee Rights, Public Libraries, Reopening policies, Safety, ADA, HRL

Topic: Elections and Executive Order 202.13 - 4/22/2020
[Note; the text of this question was edited to remove the precise dates of scheduled election and ...
Posted: Wednesday, April 22, 2020 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

[Note; the text of this question was edited to remove the precise dates of scheduled election and notice.]

Executive Order 202.13 states:

"Circulation, filing, and collection of any designating petitions, or independent nominating petitions for any office that would otherwise be circulated or filed pursuant to the Election Law, Education Law or any other consolidated law for any office commencing March 31, 2020 are hereby postponed.

Any school board, library board, or village election scheduled to take place in April or May of 2020 is hereby postponed until at least June 1, 2020, and subject to further directive as to the timing, location or manner of voting for such elections."


My question is: our legal notices had been published indicating an open trustee position and petition deadlines were due March XX (none were filed) and the budget vote is April XX. The question is do we have to do a legal notice that the vote is postponed and do new legal notices once we have a date? At the same time can we reopen the opportunity for people to file a petition to run for the board?

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

This question is from a school district public library.  Before answering it, I called the library director who sent it in.

Why?  Well, first, I wanted to introduce myself.  When a question has a lot of nuance and potential long-term ramifications, I like the member to know the answer comes from a real human being, not just a faceless attorney in Buffalo, NY.

Second, I wanted to check in on some details.  As other school district public libraries can attest to, the minutia of elections and budget votes can get very technical—as well as personal (and sometimes passionate). Getting those details right is both an art and a science.

And finally...I'm not gonna lie. Sitting alone in my office, with my treasured staff working from home, cut off from our normal busy but generally cheery atmosphere, I might have been a tad lonely.  Although anyone who works with me will tell you that half the time I am working in an introverted and ADD-infused cloud, four weeks of pandemic isolation have taken their toll. It was nice to call the member and connect at a human level.

How did the conversation go? I'll keep that part confidential.

Let’s take a brief aside to review the “Ask the Lawyer” model.

For members who use “Ask the Lawyer,” there are often two concrete results from the submission of the question:

The most common result is a post to the “Recently Asked Questions” (“RAQ”) site, which will contain generic guidance with no identifying details, so a general assessment of the legal issue can be shared with the largest possible impacted library community.

The second result, which doesn't occur for every question (but it's still pretty frequent) is a “confidential memo” just for the member and their council.  This “confidential memo” supplements the general input with confidential legal advice, and lets us address any unique details that pertain to only that member.

This is how the 3R’s maximize the resources (legal fees) used to get the legal guidance and advice, while also enabling timely services to their members.  And as I’ve reviewed, it is also how lonely attorneys can occasionally arrange a phone call to socialize about a legal need during pandemic-imposed isolation.

So, again…how did the conversation with the member go?  As I said, it’s confidential. But let's just say, when I call a librarian, I expect some good conversation, and this member did not disappoint.

And with that, here is my generic “Recently Asked Questions” input on this situation:

The first priority in assessing any matter related to an election or budget vote is to consider any past extraordinary details—such as a previous controversy or contested procedures.  As they say in the “Music Man”: You gotta know the territory.[1]  If there has been any past issue or hostility, planning to navigate a postponed election with those sensitivities in mind is wise.

Next (and this is essential), is setting up to ensure consistent and well-communicated support about the election from leaders and stakeholders: in this case, the board, the staff, the library’s system, the local school district, and (even if the election is not in their purview) the county Board of Elections.  This includes communication about the postponement, and the re-set proceedings.

Why is this a critical step? When you're sailing into uncharted waters, it's good to sail with a fleet, and to cross-check each other’s navigation.

And finally (but critically), before making any announcements or plans, check your charter, bylaws, and date of formation.  Some libraries will have provisions in them relevant to this situation, and per sub-section 8 of Section 260 of the NY Education Law (controlling school district public library elections), a library chartered before April 30, 1971 may have a bit more leeway in these matters, as a matter of law.  Further, your library may have its own notice requirements or procedures, on top of the base-line legal requirements.

Now, as to the present circumstances, let’s parse the relevant content of Executive Order 202.12:

Circulation, filing, and collection of any designating petitions, or independent nominating petitions for any office that would otherwise be circulated or filed pursuant to the Election Law, Education Law or any other consolidated law for any office commencing March 31, 2020 are hereby postponed.

Any school board, library board, or village election scheduled to take place in April or May of 2020 is hereby postponed until at least June 1, 2020, and subject to further directive as to the timing, location or manner of voting for such elections.

As if this whole exercise isn’t going to be complicated enough, the first thing I need to note is that, under Education Law Section 260 (sub-section 7), school district public libraries have between April 1 to the end of June to hold their elections.  So just be aware: EO 202.13 did not delay all scheduled elections (only those set for “April or May).  So, for this answer, we’ll only address elections set for April or May.

Next, we need to check in not only with Education Law Section 260, but its companion Section 2018, which addresses the filing of petitions:

Each petition shall be filed in the office of the clerk of the district between the hours of nine a.m. and five p.m., not later than the thirtieth day preceding the school meeting or election at which the candidates nominated are to be elected. [emphasis added]

And of course, Education law Section 2004, which requires notice be given:

“…at least forty-five days before said meeting, in two newspapers if there shall be two, or in one newspaper if there shall be but one, having general circulation within such district. But if no newspaper shall then have general circulation therein, the said notice shall be posted in at least twenty of the most public places in said district forty-five days before the time of such meeting.”

So, with all that, what are the answers to the member’s questions?

First question: Do we have to do a legal notice that the vote is postponed and do new legal notices once we have a date?

My assessment is that the Executive Order is sufficient notice that the vote is postposed.  However, once the proceedings can be re-scheduled, a library will need to publish new notices. Further, it is important to note that the EO hints there will be “further directive as to the timing, location or manner of voting for such elections” coming from the Governor (or perhaps guidance from NYSED, upon direction of the Governor).

I imagine such “further directive” will take into account that typically, libraries must give at least 45 days’ notice.  But in any event, right now, school district public library elections are in a holding pattern, and the boards and leadership need to stay alert for further directions on next steps.

That said, a discussion with stakeholders, to ensure your library is ready to set its proceeding when the time comes, might be wise.  This could include a notice about the postponed proceedings, and direction as to where to look for next steps.

Here is a template:

Consistent with Executive Order 202.13, the [NAME] Library’s elections and budget vote are postponed, and the library is awaiting further direction from the state regarding rescheduling.  The Library will publish further notice and information to the public regarding the election as soon as we are able.  Questions about elections in [COUNTY] County can be directed to the [COUNTY] County Board of Elections at (###)###-####.

Second question: Can we reopen the opportunity for people to file a petition to run for the board?

This is fascinating.

The way I see it, 202.13’s “postponement” of elections means the thirty-day deadline for filing a designating petition will automatically be re-set to thirty days before whatever the new election will be.  This is because under Education Law Sections 260(8) and 2018, the deadline for filing is not a fixed date, but a deadline calculated based on the date of the election.  So, I think being ready to ask people to step up and get designated so you have sufficient nominees—especially if there were none duly submitted by the last deadline—is a good idea.

Of course, right now all collection and filing of designating petitions are also “postponed” (see the first excerpted paragraph of the Executive Order).   And the deadlines for petitions are going to be tough to hit before the July 1 statutory deadline. And at some point, there may be a decision that previous submissions will not be re-opened.

The next “directive” on this issue will have to tackle the issue of meeting the notification and petition filing deadlines, as well as the implications for those libraries that were in the notice period, and those that were not.

This is where conferring with the local Board of Elections officials, and the school district, even if they do not oversee your library’s elections, will be so critical.  They will have the insight and probably some inside information to share about how this will be configured.  And for those libraries with a lawyer, this is the time to involve them (before final decisions are made).

To put this in context, right now although critical, the election is probably only one of the numerous high priority issues your library board is considering. First and foremost is likely the on-going well-being of the library and its role in the anticipated recovery of your community.

With that in mind, I suggest any board facing this situation also review the guidance on using a crisis management for public libraries, and factor the monitoring and messaging around this issue into their response plan.

If and when we get an update or “further directives,” we’ll post any update to this answer.



[1] Has anyone ever done a poll to see how many librarians have been serenaded with the “Marion,” song?  And taken a further poll to see if it is now regarded as harassment?

 

Tags: COVID-19, Emergency Response, Executive Order, Public Libraries, Elections

Topic: Emergency contact information for children attending library programs - 11/12/2019
My question is: do public libraries have any legal obligation to collect emergency contact informa...
Posted: Tuesday, November 12, 2019 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

My question is: do public libraries have any legal obligation to collect emergency contact information for children (age 17 and under) attending library programs without a parent or caregiver present/on the premises? Our library is located on the campus of a school district, and we have access to the school district's library automation system, in addition to our own, so we could easily and quickly locate contact information for the parents/caregivers of children who attend our programs in the event of a medical or other type of emergency situation. We already have an unattended minor policy as well. Our Library Board wants to make sure that we are in compliance with both Federal and New York State law on this issue. Thank you.

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

This question is rather like asking an astronautical engineer: When on a spacewalk, are there any safety procedures specifically related to securing my helmet as I exit the airlock? 

Such a question could inspire an initial reaction like:  Safety concerns?  In SPACE???  Blazing comets,[1] the safety concerns start the moment you blast off!

But upon reflecting on the actual question, the calm, composed answer might be: “To ensure integrity of the pressure garment assembly, double-check the neck-dam’s connection to the helmet’s attaching ring.”[2]

Lawyers get this way addressing questions related to children and liability.  Our first reaction is to think about everything that can go wrong.  But then we calm down and focus on the specific issue at hand.

So, here is my calm, composed answer to the member’s very specific question:

There are two potential instances where a public library offering a program for unaccompanied minors might be obligated by law to collect emergency contact information.

FIRST INSTANCE

If the program the library is hosting is a camp required by law to have a “Safety Plan,” applicable regulations arguably require that the library gather the child’s emergency medical treatment and contact information.[3]

SECOND INSTANCE

If the library is paying a child performer as part of an event, the law requires that the library must collect the child performer’s parent/guardian information before the performance.[4]

Other than the above instances, while such a practice may be required by an insurance carrier,[5] a landlord, or event sponsor, there is no state law or regulation that makes collecting emergency contact information a specific requirement of a public library.

I do have two additional considerations, though.

FIRST CONSIDERATION

 “Emergency contact” information provided by the parents/guardians, in a signed document drafted expressly for your library, is generally the best course of action when welcoming groups of unaccompanied minors for events not covered by your library’s usual policies. 

I write this because Murphy’s Law (which is not on the bar exam, but remains a potent force in the world) will ensure the one time there is an incident at your youth program, the district’s automation system will be down.

Which brings us to the….

SECOND CONSIDERATION

Libraries and educational institutions sharing automation systems must make sure that such data exchange does not violate either FERPA (which bars educational institutions from sharing certain student information), or CPLR 4509 (which bars libraries from sharing user information).

Emergency contact information maintained by a school is potentially a FERPA-protected education record.[6]  If FERPA-protected, it is illegal for any third party—such as a public library—to access it unless there is an agreement in place with certain required language AND the library’s use of the information is in the students’ “legitimate educational interests.” [7]

Of course, given the right circumstances, meeting these criteria is perfectly possible.  In fact, such agreements can be a routine part of a school’s operations.   But just like with a space helmet before leaving the airlock, its best to confirm that everything is in place before you take the next step.[8]

Thanks for a thought-provoking question.

 

 



[1] I imagine aeronautical engineers swear like the rest of us, but I like to image they sound like characters Golden Age comic books.

[2] Thanks, NASA.gov!

[3] I know this question isn’t really about camps, but libraries do host them.  And since the NY State Health Department’s template for a licensed camp’s “Safety Plan” includes eliciting emergency contact/treatment info, I have to include this consideration. For a breakdown of what types of camps requires licenses, visit https://www.health.ny.gov/publications/3603/

[4] This is a requirement of Title 12 NYCRR § 186-4.4. Since the library would also need said child performer’s license to perform, this requirement would not likely be missed!  I also appreciate that this example is on the far side of what this question is actually about.

[5] Call your carrier to check.  They may even have preferred language for your library to use when crafting registration documents.

[6] The definition of “education records” under FERPA (and its many exceptions) is here: https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?rgn=div5&node=34:1.1.1.1.33#se34.1.99_13.  Interestingly, a student’s name, phone number, and address—three critical components of an emergency contact form—are potentially not FERPA-protected “education records” as they may be considered “directory information” if specifically listed in a public notice from the school, as required by FERPA Section 99.37. FERPA violations can turn on these small details!

[7] What language is that? Under FERPA Section 99.31, an educational agency or institution may disclose such information to another party (like a library on its campus) if that party is: 1) performing a function for which the school would otherwise use employees; 2) the library directly controls the contractor’s use and maintenance of the records; and 3) the contractor is required to not further disclose the records.  This formula can also be found in the link in footnote 4.

[8] Who says that simile can’t make a second appearance?!

Tags: FERPA, Policy, Privacy, CPLR 4509, Public Libraries

Year

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The WNYLRC's "Ask the Lawyer" service is available to members of the Western New York Library Resources Council. It is not legal representation of individual members.