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Library director fires manager in Dubois; board upholds decision

Jan 6, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

Sabatka said she bought $500 in books with library money for the local school district, which said it would reimburse the library.

On Nov. 8, Fremont County library director Matt Nojonen fired Dubois Branch Library manager Paula Sabatka, and a month later the Fremont County Library Board of Directors upheld that termination.

Sabatka, who had been the branch manager for six years, said she was terminated for helping the school district in Dubois.

Sabatka appealed her termination to the library board, but the board decided Dec. 14 not to overturn Nojonen's decision to terminate Sabatka.

Nojonen and chairman of the library board Kevin Tippets said they could not comment on the reason for Sabatka's termination citing confidentiality issues.

Sabatka said she bought about $500 worth of books for Fremont County School District 2 with library money. She said she had an agreement with District 2 that the district would pay back the library system.

District 2 superintendent Gerry Nolan agreed saying Sabatka bought books that cost "$504 and change" for the school district. School district staff also selected the books to be purchased, he said.

There had been a discussion about buying the books before the purchase, but there was not a decision as to who would purchase them, Nolan said.

"We just hadn't clarified," he said. "We didn't get to that level of detail. I wish we had."

He agreed with Sabatka in the details regarding how the purchase played out.

"She paid for them from the library account, and we reimbursed it right away, " he said. "It was the plan."

Nolan added that Nojonen spoke with him about the book purchase before Nojonen fired Sabatka.

Sabatka said Nojonen terminated her because of the book purchase, but she said she did not know such a transaction was wrong before she made the purchase.

Nolan said the school district had not reimbursed the library system before Nojonen terminated Sabatka.

"From my point of view, you had a clerical error," he said. "The result is horrible."

Nojonen also gave her no warning he was going to fire her, Sabatka said.

Nojonen later would not comment on the reason he terminated Sabatka or whether the book purchase violated a policy or law, citing confidentiality issues.

No policy in the library system's Organizational and Personnel Policies explicitly prohibits such a transaction.

Collaboration

Though she had not fronted library money for school books before, she said, the two agencies had collaborated previously.

Classes would come to the library for reading times, librarians would go to the schools, and the library would request books through inter-library loan for student projects, Sabatka said

"We were helping them as much as we could," she said, and she never was told the collaboration was out of line.

"The services they were talking about, providing other direct services to the students were not out of line," Nojonen said. "It was nothing outside the realm of normal library activities."

Board hearing

Sabatka's appeal of her termination led to a hearing in front of the library board.

Minutes state the board heard and discussed both sides of the case for several hours Nov. 29.

Present at the meeting were Nojonen, Nolan, Sabatka and her husband, Chris, Mark Wingerson, library board members, library business manager Rebecca Thomas, Fremont County deputy attorney Jodi Darrough and attorney Joel Vincent.

According to the minutes, Wingerson acted as an advocate for Paula Sabatka.

Nolan said later that he spoke in support of Sabatka at the meeting.

Tippets said the library board hired Vincent as a hearing officer.

Dozens of Dubois area residents wrote letters supporting her, Sabatka said, and she presented those letters at the meeting as well.

Details of the Nov. 29 meeting are not available because it was held in executive session.

The minutes do say Vincent would take possession of evidence presented at the meeting and prepare "proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law and order" that he would present to the library board at a later date.

Tippets said the board received Vincent's report Dec. 14.

Sabatka said the hearing officer determined her position was an at will one.

"I can be fired for no reason or any reason," she said. "He suggested they uphold Matt (Nojonen)'s decision to terminate me."

The library system's Organizational and Personnel Policies booklet seems to confirm Sabatka's position was at will.

Unless a written agreement states otherwise, the manual states, "employment with Fremont County Library System is on an 'at will' basis and may be terminated with or without cause or notice."

Tippets said the board could accept, modify or reject the hearing officer's order at its Dec. 14 meeting.

"The board did adopt the order as presented," he said. "The order was not to reverse the termination of Paula Sabatka. The determination of the hearing officer will be a public record and will be attached to the minutes of those meetings."

Thomas said the minutes of the Dec. 14 meeting are not available until the library board formally approves them. She said they will be available after the board's meeting Jan. 9.

Tippets also said the library board does not usually handle personnel issues except to hire or fire a library director. The board only became involved in Sabatka's case because she filed a grievance with the board, Tippets said.

"I think the board fulfilled its responsibilities properly," he said.

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