By Jenny Neyman
The proceedings at the Soldotna City Council meeting April 10 would have been enough to warrant a “Ssshhhhing” from the city librarian — what with bursts of applause, strongly worded admonitions, occasionally raised voices, teary testimonials, desk thumps for emphasis and unhappy grumbles from the packed crowd — had the librarian, a 28-year employee of the city, not been unexpectedly fired first thing the preceding Monday morning, which is what drew the crowd and its outrage to the council meeting.
Terri Burdick, director of the Joyce K. Carver Soldotna Public Library, said that she was dismissed with no warning and no explanation by City Manager Mark Dixson the morning of April 8, before she had a chance to bring in the large, stuffed dinosaur and other accoutrements for the library’s upcoming summer reading program she had picked up — on her dime — in Anchorage over the weekend.
“I haven’t a clue, I really don’t,” she said of what might have caused her dismissal.
Neither did her crowd of supporters.
“Tonight when we started this meeting we started with the Pledge of Allegiance and the last part of the Pledge of Allegiance says, ‘With liberty and justice for all.’ And that word justice has been on my mind a lot the last few days, because it seems so unjust,” said Jeanette Pedginski, who worked with Burdick for two years at the library. “From what I read everything was legal. From what I’ve heard everything was legal. … Even if it’s legal to fire with no cause, it’s morally wrong.”
Soldotna’s municipal code states that staff members in positions exempt from the city’s collective bargaining agreement with employees — including department heads, such as the library director — are not protected by the section of code dictating how dismissals be carried out. Regular employees must receive at least one written notice prior to discharge, and if discharge occurs, an employee must be given a copy of the discharge notice and the reasons for discharge.
But Section 2.30.060 states that, “… An exempt employee may be terminated without cause at any time unless a term, in writing, of the employee’s contract of employment specifically provides otherwise.”
Council chambers were filled with 50 or so supporters of Burdick. The supporters came to express displeasure over Burdick’s dismissal, particularly over the way in which it was carried out.
“Everywhere I see her she is an excellent example of kindness, of caring, of compassion, of love for life, for books, for reading, for children, for culture. I don’t understand why someone who shows that type of effort, drive, love for her community, would be treated in such a way. Every other sort of job that you or I could ever hope to attain all come with certain benefits associated with lifetime dedication. And this is not that,” said Justin Ruffridge, of Soldotna. “… None of you would be expected to be treated like that. It’s a shame, it’s a real shame. I really thought that our town was better than that.”
Many offered glowing testimonials of Burdick’s service — the extra time and effort she put into her job, the welcoming atmosphere she created, her theatrical way of engaging kids in story time, the games, prizes and activities she’d come up with to enrich the summer reading program, her whole-hearted, costume-donning, smile-wearing cheerleading for the library in parades, at festivals and elsewhere in the community, the care she took in managing the library and her dedication to facilitating the library expansion project currently underway.
“She’s been very enthused and very helpful on the new library, very responsible, very responsive and committed to doing a wonderful job. I thoroughly support her. I hope if there’s anything you could do or to change, you would do so,” said Marge Hays, a member of the library board of directors.
“Terri gives her heart and her soul and her every day waking moment to that institution, and it’s hard to see it end,” said a teary Sharen Sleater, of Soldotna, who worked with Burdick for 12 years.
“From my perspective, the library is running well, especially during this transitional time (of the expansion),” said Sabrina Harden, of Soldotna. “I don’t know the issues going on, but I want you to know from my opinion that if you do not reinstate Terri as librarian you will have to learn the hard way that Terri has brought so much good to our community, and we appreciate it.”
Beyond Harden’s respect for Burdick in a professional capacity was her appreciation on a personal level.
“Terri has inspired my 10-year-old daughter. Today she told me, ‘When I grow up, Mom, I wanted Miss Terri to teach me how to become a librarian, and now she won’t be there,’” Hardin said.
Burdick taught her own daughter, Sarah Hondel, now a teacher, by example the importance of working hard for something in which you believe. Service to Soldotna is something of tradition in the Burdick family.
“I feel it’s very ironic that Patricia Burdick, my grandmother, is going to be recognized. This chamber where we’re sitting, the week after next is going to be dedicated to my grandmother for her hard work and dedication being city clerk for Soldotna, Alaska. My mother deserves recognition for her 28 years of working for Soldotna. I’ve never, ever been so disappointed in this town,” Hondel said.
As glowing as people’s comments were about Burdick, they were anything but regarding the manner in which she was dismissed.
Dave Carey, former mayor of Soldotna and the Kenai Peninsula Borough, and chair of the Friends of the Library board, said he was going to quit his position in protest, but changed his mind upon reflecting that Burdick wouldn’t want anyone to do anything “that damages or lessens the library,” he said.
“I received a call from the city manager, Mr. Dixson, Monday morning informing me of Terri’s plight. I was very surprised and I was very sad for our community. I was concerned that Terri wasn’t being treated fairly and justly, and that is still my concern,” Carey said.
Rosie Reeder, of Soldotna, a longtime library volunteer, found it unreasonable that Dixson would fire Burdick in as short a time period as he’s held the position of city manager. He began work with the city in November 2012, hired from his previous job as general services director for the Kenai Peninsula Borough, a position he held since April 2011. Before that he was country attorney for Tioga Country in upstate New York for four years, and had previously been in private practice there as an attorney for 17 years.
“I’m very upset that someone who has served as city manager for such a short time has taken it upon himself to let someone go who has given us 30 years of service,” Reeder said.
Whatever issue might have precipitated the firing, several people commented that Burdick should have been given opportunity to resolve it, and to retire of her own volition.
“That’s the problem that I have with the situation right now is when you have a problem with somebody, you work with that person,” Pedginski said.
Burdick said that she didn’t feel she had been given such an opportunity.
“What I don’t understand is Mr. Dixson. He barely talks to me. I can count on my fingers the conversations we’ve had. And I wish he would have told me if I was failing in some place, and he wanted me to work harder. I know we’ve had a few issues come up that we’ve talked about and I said I’m trying my hardest, and I feel I have tried my hardest with the whole community,” she said.
The speakers speculated on a number of possible reasons for the firing — that Burdick lacked a degree in library sciences (which is not offered in the state); that she wasn’t raising enough money or generating enough community support for the expansion project; that she was too old-school in advocating for keeping up supplies of books and CDs rather than turning more toward technologies; or that she wanted to be hands-on with library patrons, rather than spending most her time in an office writing grants and dealing with paperwork.
Neither did council members escape the recriminations of the public.
“This was done on your watch, Soldotna City Council, so if he does it, you do it, and I think you should consider that,” Reeder said.
With Soldotna’s manager style of government, the council doesn’t directly handle hiring and firing actions of staff beyond the city manger, but Joe Rizzo, of Nikiski, charged that the council does handle the management of the city manager.
“What I’m calling on this council to do is not only to reconsider this, because everything that Mr. Dixson does, he serves at your pleasure,” Rizzo said. “… And at the very least, this council needs to issue an apology to Terri Burdick for the way this has been handled. Very shabby, far below anything that this council would do, I am confident of that. You get to make those decisions, but ladies and gentlemen, please, do what our mothers taught us to do and treat people with respect. We demand that of our city employees.”
Council members in attendance — John Czarnezki, Dale Bagley, acting Mayor Brenda Hartman and Pete Sprague — were mum on the issue. Later in the meeting they unanimously approved a job description to be posted in the search for a new librarian. The first duty listed is to, “Develop short- and long-range plans for library services, programs, and capital improvement projects for review and approval by city manager.” Other duties include exploring and incorporating uses of technologies, and outreach to the public. It calls for a bachelor’s degree, with a graduate degree in library and information science preferred.
Dixson said that Burdick’s education wasn’t the issue — that she had a waiver from the state on needing a degree. And that it is standard practice to review and revise job descriptions as positions come open.
But beyond saying what wasn’t the issue leading to Burdick’s termination, he was unable to explain what was. He said that he was following the counsel of legal and human resources departments that dismissal of a department head be effective immediately upon notification, and that no reason be given.
“I was not given any options from our legal counsel (or) HR. The way that I wanted to handle it was to handle it exactly the way that you people here would have liked me to handle it. If I had handled it in that fashion, this council should have fired me, and so I did what I was told,” Dixson said.
“You are right, Terri deserves an apology for the way it was handled. It was the most horrifying experience that I’ve ever done in my life,” he said.
“I’m a lawyer. I understand it. I don’t like it, but it’s the decision that was made and I followed through on the decision the way I was required to do so. So if you want to hate me for that, that’s fine, I’m not paid to be popular, I’m paid to make decisions for the benefit of the city, its residents, its employees, and I apologize that I caused you all this anguish,” he said.
Dixson said that he was at peace with the decision he made, even if not with the way in which it occurred.
“It wasn’t made in a vacuum. It was made with the complete thought that I was going to be seeing all of you here this evening,” he said. “… The decision that I made I felt, and I still feel, was the right decision.”
Burdick addressed the council and administration wearing a sweatshirt bearing the Soldotna city logo. She said she didn’t want people to be bitter or angry toward city government.
“I want to thank you for the privilege of having worked for the city for as long as I did. I would have liked to have continued a little bit longer, at least through the expansion to be finished, because I feel that it’s going to be a beautiful, beautiful place when it’s done,” Burdick said.
Following the meeting, she said she felt better at having spoken her piece and at hearing so many of her friends, colleagues and library patrons endorse the work she’d done over her career.
“I’m overwhelmed by the support, I really am,” she said. “That’s what means the most to me, is the support of my community.”