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Opponent of Mixed-Use MLK Packs Voter Rolls, Wins Library Group Presidency

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Robin Diener, the director of the Ralph Nader-backed D.C. Library Renaissance Project, packed a basement room at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library with supporters tonight and trounced the incumbent to become the president of the MLK Library Friends.

The election held unusual drama for a contest for an unpaid library advocacy position. LaToya Thomas, who founded the group two years ago and has served as its president since, had accused Diener of forging membership application forms in order to register scores of allies and win the vote. Diener countered that she only created the forms because Thomas wasn't providing her with the applications she requested, and that Thomas has been an ineffective and "tyrannical" president.

It could also have unusually big consequences. In her work with Nader on the Library Renaissance Project, Diener has strenuously opposed the planned mixed-use redevelopment of the West End Library, in keeping with Nader's opposition to public-private library partnerships and despite the support of every neighborhood group for the project. With MLK also facing an overhaul that's expected to include private uses to defray the cost of development, the Library Renaissance Project has begun expressing its opposition to such a move. Now that she controls the MLK Library Friends—a group that's likely to be treated as the official representative of MLK supporters and have standing at hearings on the redevelopment before the Zoning Commission and other bodies—she'll have a much larger say over the library's future.

And she'll have allies to help her. Mary Alice Levine, the former president of the Friends of the Tenley-Friendship Library, who sent out an email yesterday urging people to vote for Diener, was elected treasurer. Following the vote tally, Nick Burger, the incumbent vice president who ran unopposed for re-election, announced that he was withdrawing from the group's leadership because "the organization's going in a different direction." Katja Hering, re-elected as secretary without opposition, likewise said she'd have to reconsider whether she wants to serve.

Typically, meetings of the MLK Library Friends have only about five participants, according to several people who have attended those meetings. Tonight, more than 50 people packed the small basement room, mostly supporters of Diener who joined the group for the first time.

In order to vote, people had to be members of the group, which involved filling out a form and paying $10 in dues. Before the meeting, Diener manned a table in the library lobby where she helped people register. Registrations continued to be submitted throughout the meeting.

In the end, Diener defeated Thomas by a 38-12 margin.

"With the turnout, I'm not surprised at how things happened," Thomas said after the meeting. She does not plan to have any further involvement with the group, given her disagreement with Diener's focus on opposing a mixed-use redevelopment. "I'm not convinced the group is going to go in a good direction," she says.

Diener says her primary objective is to "work on a public discussion about the future of the Martin Luther King Library including public-private partnerships and financing." Her secondary goals include addressing homelessness and literacy and building the group's membership.

The meeting was contentious from the start, as Diener repeatedly interrupted Thomas to make parliamentary objections. Oliver Hall, the lawyer for the Library Renaissance Project and for Nader, likewise spoke up to object to the procedure for write-in candidacies. Chris Otten, another member of the Library Renaissance Project, was also present; Nader was not.

The task faced by the D.C. Public Library and the architects and developers who will try to renovate MLK has always been daunting, given the scope of the project and the historic status of the building. Now that Diener and her allies will control at least half, and potentially all, of the MLK Library Friends, it could be that much more difficult.

Photo via D.C. Public Library

  • True Friend of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library

    This is unfortunate. Ms. Diener & co. aspire to be treated with respect and taken seriously within the city's library community yet it is because of these actions that they are not. In place of being true advocates for the improvement of the library (MLK or neighborhood branches) from programmatic focus to circulation, Ms. Diener & co., as documented by Mr. Weiner, have resorted to a strictly litigious bent costing the city's library funds that could go to enhanced services, more staff, more hours, etc. They harm city library users.

    Ms. Diener & co. are not advocates of the city library. They are helpful only to their perverted self-interests.

    They are library bullies, not library friends.

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  • Oliver Hall

    In our thankfully limited experience, the many factual errors in Aaron Wiener's reporting always skew his story in a certain direction -- in favor of development at any cost, and against those who want District taxpayers to get fair market value for their assets.

    One relatively minor example: Wiener reports that I objected to "the procedure for write-in candidacies" in last night's meeting of the Friends of MLK Library. That is false. I objected to the fact that the incumbent president was attempting to hold a vote for her re-election with only one name -- hers -- listed on the ballot. As I stated at the meeting, that is an unfair procedure because it relegates any challenger to the status of a write-in candidate. In Wiener's garbled account, this objection about the basic unfairness of the election becomes a quibble about write-in candidacies.

    When this sort of inaccuracy becomes a pattern, it goes beyond mere sloppiness and suggests a deliberate attempt by Wiener to misrepresent the views of those with whom he disagrees. Rather than reporting that more than 50 concerned citizens spent their Tuesday evening in the basement of the MLK library to debate its fate, for example, Wiener claims that an "opponent" of mixed-used development "packed" the voter rolls, and that her election will make the developers' task "that much more difficult."

    That Wiener thinks developers are having a "difficult" time here in the District explains much about the stories he chooses to write. My attempt to get him to see the other side is here, http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk/2013/10/10/chatter-unsafe-at-any-read/, but it seems not to have taken given his dissembling response. Maybe Wiener can take some pointers from WAMU's Patrick Madden and Julie Patel, who know how to report on the subject with the level of seriousness it deserves. See their five-part investigation here: http://apps.npr.org/deals-for-developers-wamu/.

  • Another Friend of the MLK Library

    @True Friend of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library:

    You are absolutely correct. These people are simply extortionists.

  • goldfish

    "Typically, meetings of the MLK Library Friends have only about five participants..."

    "In the end, Diener defeated Thomas by a 38-12 margin."

    It sounds like Ms Diener is doing this organization a lot of good, attracting paying members that show up to meetings. This is a good thing.

    The reporting for this article is flawed because it is strongly slanted toward the old guard.

  • Eleanor Dore

    I was part of the meeting last night, hoping that Robin Diener would unseat LaToya Thomas, whose leadership style was dictatorial and repressive. Her continued obsession with agreeing with all administration left members of the friends of MLK unable to excpress their opinions freely - no one could express opposition to the mixed-use plans for MLK, for example.
    I look forward to a more open group, one in which all views can be aired, and advocacy for the library actually includes the possibility of occasionally disagreeing with its administraion.

  • A true friend as well

    But I applaud Ms. Diener & Co.

    The MLK Friends only get standing to bring their point of view. They don't control the outcome. And quite honestly, this process needs as much friction as it can get.

    I expect the District will proceed with its plan to redevelop MLK into a mixed use, despite opposition. The money interest are too powerful.

    The risk here is that the so-called public private partnership may run roughshod over the MLK, and take more than it gives in its redevelopment scheme. Knowing that Ms. Diener & Co. are involved may produce a better outcome for the library.

    And what's the alternative? A docile group of sleepy library friends who may be taking the District at its word? Who don't push back at all? Who is the biggest threat?

    Ms. Diener & Co. have done nothing wrong. The supporters of the public/private partnership could have encouraged people to attend this meeting but they did not. That tells you something right there about their level of engagement, and about the trust people should put into the library friends groups.

    To be clear: I heartily applaud Ms. Diener & Co.'s vigilance, civic activism and spirit.

  • And there you have it

    I hope that the mayor yanks the funding for the new library now. What is the point since clearly nothing is going to happen but fighting and delays.

  • And there you have it

    Follow up question. If normally only 5 or so people attend the meeting, how many members were in the group. If the members who were members before last night say the leadership was bad, then the change makes sense. But if the people are saying that leadership was bad based on a recruitment campaign, I don't think we should take their word for it.

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  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    I can't speak for Robin but the headline appears to be inaccurate. The DC Library Renaissance Project and other stakeholders and interested parties like myself ARE NOT AGAINST "MIXED USE" per se, using the definition of mixed use as offered by Jane Jacobs in _Death and Life_.

    Note that I discuss these issues with Robin from time to time and I would consider myself to be a supporter of the position of DCLRP on library issues both at MLK and the West End Library.

    What "we" are against is NON-CIVIC MIXED USES in the Central Library site such as office space rented to commercial tenants not related to media functions.

    We favor MIXED CIVIC USES, not MIXED NON-CIVIC USE, which is the course favored by various interests.

    That means that having publishers, either for profit or nonprofit, other library, archival, museum type uses, a visitor center (well for me, others might disagree), even bookstores (for profit or nonprofit) as well as better auditorium facilities, galleries, exhibit space, cafe/restaurant, so long as they are civic related, is fine.

    See http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2013/09/the-central-library-planning-process-in.html and http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-salt-lake-city-central-library-is.html

    The Central Library is not just any old building. Along with a city hall, courthouse, the key park, civic auditorium, and main high school, the Central Library is typically a foundational element of a city's civic identity, which except in the most neoliberal regimes, is not mixed up with the commercial.

    Libraries and the central library in particular are likely to be the single most visited nontransportational civic asset in a community.

    So how you treat it, commercialize it, etc., says a lot about a city's vision and sense of self.

    I haven't gotten around to writing about the cover story on "Ralph Nader" and the libraries, and the West End matter in particular, what the article was lacking was detailed specifics about problems with the West End deal as outlined by DCLRP and problems with the library plan as designed, and how Eastbanc is sticking the city with the maintenance for all of the ground floor/outside space on the site, even though much of the benefit is reaped by the condo owners.

    Etc.

    I didn't go last night but I would have if I had rec'd earlier notice. I would consider Robin and people like myself very strong supporters of a Central Library.

  • AWalkerInTheCIty

    Richard Layman

    The use of the term neoliberal regime, seems to me to be to an ideological detraction from policy issues. Commerce is not dirty, any more than govt is. Libraries in this country have been routinely named for exploitive steel magnates, and to include business publications.

    I see no particular reason why private office space in the same building will detract from this library (as it does not from the Mid Manhattan branch of the NYPL) or why say a Starbucks is more of a problem here than in the USDOT building. Or than Tavern on the Green is in Central Park. Or private concessions on the National Mall.

    Goldfish

    I wish you well on the imminent opening of the H Street streetcar.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard layman

    In this context the use of the word Neoliberal is pretty deliberate. It means usually an over-valuing of the market at the expense of the civic, a belief that government is incapable, that "the market" is always superior.

    Here, the belief is that the city--which had a budget surplus approaching $500 million in FY2013, lacks the resources to be able to fund a renovation of one of the most definitional civic assets that a city has to offer.

    Interestingly, in the panoply of new or significantly renovated central library projects in the US, UK, Canada, or Continental Europe in the last 10-15 years, no other project has proposed the mixing or co-location of public-civic and privatized space. Only in DC. Either DC is very innovative or very f*ed. I'm leaning to the latter.

    Even though I am convinced the renovation project will move forward, although maybe not exactly as proposed by the conceptual plan done by the Freelon Group.

    And again, while I can't speak for the DCLRP, I am pretty sure they believe this project will move forward too, and a better library is good for all.

    The issue is if the expansion occurs, how to deal with the space.

  • Library Nonrenaissance Project

    "I can't speak for the DCLRP, I am pretty sure they believe this project will move forward too..."

    Rrrrright, after we've just seen them take their failed case against West End all the way to court, lose on every count, then promise nonetheless to appeal.

    And haul their attorney to a fight over a little library club's election.

    Ted Cruz is more constructive. And more honest about his aims.

  • Dove

    Thank goodness for dedicated civic advocates like Robin and groups like the Library Renaissance Project! Without them our city would be run over by the likes of Eastbanc development, their ilk and friends in the City Council. Libraries are for the people, not for profit! Our city has the resources to invest in public libraries and should do it - not condo-ize everything! If there is to be a public/private partnership we damn sure need strong public advocates like Robin in the room - we KNOW the private side has their interests covered!

  • MLKML Friend

    LaToya Thomas has used the MLK Friends group as a front to foster the fortunes and contracts of the Architectural Firm for which she works. She will always support the dictats and policies of top DCPL Management, and was encouraged by Management to be the appointed president of the newly formed MLKML Friends group 2 years ago. Since then she has held "meetings" for "young adults" at local bars, supposedly to discuss books -- but the meetings were attended by only a few -- a very small few. Similarly, meetings of MLKML Friends at the MLK Library were attended by two or three. The group was really just a big fake. But Federation of Friends President Susan Haight, herself no stranger to window dressing, adopted LaToya and lifted her up to a new "Executive Board" member of the Federation of Friends -- a citywide group that is quite bona fide. LaToya became Susan Haight's new "Membership Chair". This position was to have helped LaToya Thomas build membership in her own central library friends group. (Membership in the Federation is more or less set, since each DC Branch Library Friends group is, de facto, a member and sends a representative.) But there was still no membership -- until Robin Diener, exasperated with the silliness of the Potemkin Village MLKFriends group, showed it up for what it was.
    How lucky the DC Public Library is that Robin Diener, a true leader, the former co-owner of Chapters Literary Bookstore, and a ten-years Literacy professional working with illiterate DC adults, -- wants to take on this task. It's perfect timing, with a new Library Director soon to be announced. Robin has the kindness, imagination and perseverance to make great things happen at our central public library.

  • And there you have it

    Anyone notice how long-winded the Nadar trolls are......

    When you have to do all of that talking to make your point, you are like the kid explaining all the ways they are telling the truth.

    This fight is going to be hilarious.

  • Chris Otten

    Several key points that Weiner didn't stick in this one...

    1) The emphasis that members and Diener put on assisting the homeless of DC, a constituency of the library who tend to just be ignored or even worse displaced from the building.

    2) Adult Literacy advocacy was also emphasized as a future endeavor for the Friends.

    3) Facilitating a citizens taskforce on the future of MLK library -- to open the discussion about whether private mixed use makes sense for a central public library. It would be the only central library in the Nation, perhaps the world, that I know of doing this type of public-private partnership.

  • Go Ralph!

    I have lived in the West End for over 20 years and DC for 30 years. I still vaguely remember when the West End was vacant buildings and open lots. I also remember all the average-income people who were scammed out of living in the apartment building three doors down from the West End Library. The original EastBanc deal was a sellout of the DC taxpayers by Adrian Fenty and Jack Evans to a deep pocketed developer. The current EastBanc deal is lipstick on a pig, as the saying goes. We all know how the game is played. Go Ralph & the DC Library Renaissance Project! I live 3.5 blocks from the West End Library at 22/N and you represent my interests!

  • Dig Deeper

    You certainly kicked the hornet's nest with your stories on Nadar and the Library Renaissance Project. You are clearly on to something. The library is government so I expect shadiness. But I also seeing some shadiness with this other group.

    MLK is too important to let either have a free pass. I would suggest that you dig deeper into both in the future. That way we know who is really being honest.

  • Katja Hering

    [Below is the letter/commentary I wrote a few weeks after the meeting, just to add it to these comments.]

    Library machine politics

    As Aaron Wiener reported in the City Paper article about the meeting (and thanks for reporting it straight), the Friends of the MLK Jr. Memorial Library had scheduled elections for new officers on October 15th, 2013. Three people had submitted their nominations for the
    positions via email in advance, following our bylaws.
    Robin Diener, who had not announced her candidacy on the listserv, recruited a large group of new people to sign up as members of the group that night, packing the meeting, so they could nominate her from the floor and elect her as president of the group, while
    ousting LaToya Thomas, the founder and president of the Friends. What upset me the most about the meeting and the manipulated election, which clearly abused the open enrollment process, was not so much that
    it indicated a new direction of the group, based on different concepts about the future development of the main branch library. Rather, I was troubled that an unfair, unequal, and discriminatory election process
    was supported and legitimized by so many people, some of whom I consider political allies and friends, raising the old organizing question as to whether the ends justify the means.

    I have been a member and have served as the secretary of the Friends since its founding over two years ago, and was re-elected in that position at the October 15th meeting. For many years, I have also shared many of the concerns of the Library Renaissance Project about
    the privatization of public spaces in the city, and have supported several of their campaigns and petitions. I have supported their idea of forming a citizens’ task force for the library, institutionalizing
    public input into the planning process, and have even offered to help organize it. I also always thought that the Friends should help facilitate discussions about the future development of the library building, even if our members had different perspectives about the
    best ways of doing it, and about the value of public private partnerships. Indeed, several weeks ago, LaToya Thomas had organized an informative discussion at the National Building Museum between architect Phil Freelon, whose firm developed a concept for the future
    design of the building, and Ginnie Cooper, outgoing Chief Librarian, moderated by Mary Fitch.

    Despite my sympathies for the aims of the Library Renaissance Project in the past, I was troubled by what happened at the meeting in October. Based on my records, the meeting was attended by at least 56
    people. This included 35, who signed up for membership that night; 35 people who had never been to one of our meetings or participated in any of our events, had never contacted us to suggest ideas, had never
    helped with the book sale this summer, and had never communicated any concerns they may have had about the group. Robin Diener herself had only attended four previous meetings of the group, and had never
    helped with organizing any of our events. The apparent purpose of the mass recruitment that night seemed to have had one aim only: to elect Robin as president, while ousting LaToya Thomas. While not explicitly
    prohibited by our bylaws, this clear abuse of the election process was nonetheless unfair, un-equal and un-transparent, reminding me more of old fashioned machine politics, than of a fair civic process.

    Rather than a competition between different candidates, the election ended up being a contest of civic muscle, driven by Robin Diener’s ability to mobilize a large number of people within a short period of
    time to come to the meeting that night. This included many members of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association, of which she used to serve as president.

    The manipulation of the election process was not only unfair, it was also clubby and discriminatory, as it automatically put anyone at a disadvantage, who didn’t want to engage in this kind of civic
    arm-wrestling, or who doesn’t have the connections and the time to mobilize a sufficient number of supporters within a short period of time through the back door. Diener’s approach was also oddly top down
    and authoritarian, a takeover strategy entirely aimed at changing the direction of the Friends by letting herself be elected as president, rather than organizing and facilitating public discussions of the
    issues at stake, and empowering members to contribute to the group and bringing about change at the grassroots level.

    While the Friends of the MLK Jr. Memorial Library are a small group, I believe that the formal and informal guidelines and processes that the group adopts matter. These processes, including the bylaws, reflect a vision of self-governance and democratic ethics, and
    perceptions about the organization of public advocacy in a diverse city, which is structured by inequalities at many levels. Despite the troubling manipulation of the last election, I am hoping that many of
    the new members who came to the last meeting will maintain their enthusiasm for the group and for the library, and move the group in a more constructive direction. I also hope that the group
    will strive to build an inclusive environment that is based on respect and fairness, and on thoroughly non-discriminatory, transparent and democratic processes. Unless the group creates such an environment, it
    will end up serving only itself, while stifling any efforts to support one of the most critical public spaces in the city through effective long-term advocacy.

    K. Hering, secretary, Friends of the MLK Jr. Memorial Library, Nov. 18, 2013

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