RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

Topic: Board of Trustees Approval for Library Reopening Plans - 8/3/2020
Should a board of trustees vote on their institution’s COVID-19 Safety Plan?  Or should...
Posted: Monday, August 3, 2020 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

Should a board of trustees vote on their institution’s COVID-19 Safety Plan?  Or should the adoption of the Plan be left entirely to the institution’s director or executive director?

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

Who is “in charge” of a library’s safety plan--the trustees, or the director?

It’s tricky, but if you bear with me, you will get an answer.

When it comes to who is “in charge” at an organization, boards must respect the authority of those they employ to lead (the director).  At the same time, the organization, including the director, must be guided by the work of those fiduciaries ultimately responsible for it (the trustees).

This dynamic can play out in many ways, but in a healthy board-director dynamic, the board lives up to its responsibility as a fiduciary by honoring the authority of the director. So to assess a question like this, I start with the board’s responsibility…which is also the responsibility of the library.

What is the responsibility of a library open during COVID-19?  Here’s the lay of the land, straight from the “NY Forward Lookup Tool”:

Image is a screenshot from the NY Forward tool, with arrows pointing out the text for applicable guidelines. This text is linked below the image.

The “applicable guidelines”[1] I have so carefully underlined (as found July 6, 2020, at https://www.governor.ny.gov/sites/governor.ny.gov/files/atoms/files/RetailMasterGuidance.pdf)  state, in relevant part:

The Responsible Parties – as defined below – are accountable for adhering to all local, state and federal requirements relative to retail business activities. …

The proprietor/operator… or another party as may be designated by the proprietor/operator (in either case, "the Responsible Parties"), shall be responsible for meeting these standards.”

As part of the “applicable guidelines”, the “Responsible Parties” must certify having read and understood the obligation of their institution to “operate in accordance with such guidance,” as shown here[2]:

Image is a screenshot with an arrow pointing to the italicized text mentioning the Responsible Parties. This text can be read on the NY Forward Applicable Guidelines page.

None of this expressly requires that the person signing the certification, or the developer of a Safety Plan, is any particular person or entity.  Rather, the “owner or agent” of the library (who could be an officer of the board with signing authority from the bylaws, the director, another employee, or even an attorney operating on instructions from the library/client) signs the certification, and at some point, they adopt a Safety Plan.  That’s it.

But while there is no prescribed process for the Safety Plan, a look at some of the things the Plan must address is instructive.  For instance, the above-linked guidance states:

Signage should be used to remind employees and customers to:

  • Cover their nose and mouth with a face covering when six feet of social distance cannot be maintained.
  • Properly store and, when necessary, discard PPE.
  • Adhere to physical distancing instructions.
  • Report symptoms of or exposure to COVID-19, and how they should do so.
  • Follow hand hygiene and cleaning and disinfection guidelines.
  • Follow appropriate respiratory hygiene and cough etiquette.

As I have written about elsewhere[3], the requirements listed above, among other things, become temporary modifications to a library’s Code of Conduct.  In order to enforce social distancing and use of PPE in the library as required by the State, a library must ultimately tie a patron’s failure to do so to its Code and process for restricting access to patrons.[4]  For that reason alone (and there are many, many others, including a Plan’s impact on conditions for employees, procurement practices, security procedures, budget, etc.), the board should be the entity that adopts the Plan.

This is not to say that a director with adequate experience to draft a library’s Safety Plan cannot be the primary author of the Plan.  In fact, the director (and other employees with high familiarity with certain operations) is likely the person best situated to envision adjusted floorplans, shift schedules, workflows, signage posting, employee temperature monitoring, and employee training methods (to name just a few), all of which must be addressed in the Safety Plan. 

But because of the many high-stakes areas a Safety Plan impacts, a library’s board should be the entity accountable for adopting it and ensuring it is updated at regular intervals.  On the flip side, after the Plan is adopted, the director will be the authority responsible for seeing that the Plan is followed.

The board has this accountability for passing the Plan because a COVID-19 Safety Plan is not just a tool for safety, but also a mechanism of legal compliance and risk management.  When you stop and think about it, most policies or plans that relate to safety, legal compliance, and risk management—things like workers’ compensation insurance policies, sexual harassment and civil rights policies, and fiscal controls policies—are all things that a board is ultimately accountable for.  While the director may have the authority to ensure compliance with them, they are adopted by a board. And that is as it should be.

Of course, it can be a challenge for a small board to meet as often as needed to keep a COVID-19 Safety Plan evolving in light of new research, evolving library operations, and on-the-ground improvements.[5]  For such situations, it is good to consider an approach like the one set out in the below template resolution:

BE IT RESOLVED that the board hereby adopts the Safety Plan considered at this meeting of DATE; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Plan be posted in the Library, as required by the Plan, within 24 hours of the passage of this Resolution; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that to ensure the Safety Plan is updated in a manner that is conducive to optimal operations of the Library, the Director, [in consultation with INSERT[6]] is authorized to update the Safety Plan as needed, consistent with CDC and OSHA guidelines, and shall present the current updated version then in effect at each subsequent meeting of the board, to be reviewed and ratified by same.

 

So, what is the answer to the member’s questions? 

There is no “right” answer to this, but lots of factors point to the board serving as a library’s COVID-19 Safety Plan’s ultimate authority.  That said, in passing such a plan, a board should draw from the experience, and support the executive authority, of the library’s director. 

Like all healthy board-director relationships, this approach requires listening, learning, a good sense of roles and boundaries, and mutual respect.  A tall order in frantic times, but one that good planning and careful consideration[7] can almost always bring about.

Thank you for an important question.

 



[1] You will no doubt be shocked to learn that my law school did not have a “graphic design” elective for marking up NY State pandemic policy documents.

[2] I imagine many directors and board members have gone through this triad of assurance many times, and are sick of it.

[4] While Executive Order 206.39 granted any business the right to refuse a person access if they are not wearing a mask (if they can medically tolerate one), I am not comfortable with any lingering consequences for refusal to wear a mask or otherwise abide by the safety plan unless they are tied to the due process in a Code of Conduct.

[5] Larger libraries will have already had a business continuity, disaster recovery, and perhaps even an all-hazards response plan in place.  The approach outlined in this answer is drafted with smaller libraries, who typically don’t have such deep resources, in mind.

[6] The option in brackets here is to allow revisions in consultation with some back-up for the director: a committee of the board, or the chair of the board, or an independent consultant as authorized by the board, or the local Health Department. 

[7] And frequent re-reads of the “Handbook for Library Trustees of New York State,” found at http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/libdev/trustees/handbook/.

Tags: COVID-19, Emergency Response, Reopening policies, Board of Trustees

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