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Besieged Library Boss Ponders How Mutiny of Employees Started

November 05, 1990|LILY ENG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — Rob Richard doesn't think he's a bad boss. As head of Orange County's oldest library system, he is in charge of a $614,000 book budget, largest in city history. He persuaded the City Council to renovate and expand the Central Library for $1.5 million, the first major remodeling for the 30-year-old building. And he launched one of the nation's first Spanish-language bookmobiles to encourage the Latino community to use the library.

But Richard, 43, has found himself fending off a mutiny by his own employees, some of whom called him "terrifying." Some of the librarians wear anti-Richard buttons. One employee told union representatives that if he had a gun, "I would blow (Richard's) head off."

Those icy reactions have stunned the usually low-keyed Richard, who directs the city's main library and two branches. In a recent interview, he bristled when told that his employees call him a dictator.

"I've never yelled or screamed at any employee," said Richard, who acknowledges that he frankly does not understand what is happening.

"I've done my best to be fair," Richard said. "If I was half the ogre the staff says I am, I don't think I could ever survive."

Nevertheless, 36 of the 52 library employees have signed a petition declaring that they lack confidence in Richard. In a report to the City Council in June, the Santa Ana library board--a citizens advisory group--admonished Richard, declaring that communication between him and his staff is a major problem. And at two recent council meetings, library employees have filled the chambers, demanding that City Manager David N. Ream fire their boss.

"This has been so distressing," said Richard. "I don't believe the entire staff feels this way. When I walk through the libraries, some individuals have come up to me and told me they support me. But it's still hard."

Santa Ana librarians, some of whom have asked that their names be withheld because they fear retribution, say they cannot work under Richard's management style, which they described as "threatening."

"He's a Hitler," said Barbara Lambert, a senior library assistant who has worked for the Santa Ana library system for 24 years. "He says to us, 'You can't do this, you can't do that.' We don't talk to him, he dictates to us."

Known for being an impeccable dresser who pays attention to detail, Richard watches over the city library much like a businessman. He worries about "customer satisfaction" and whether sections of the libraries are "utilized fully."

He keeps a tiny office, always neat, at the Old City Hall on 3rd and Main streets. An auto racing buff, he has a print of a Grand Prix racer hanging on the wall. And photos of his four daughters are kept behind his desk, along with stacks of blueprints on the library's renovation.

Richard said the librarians who complain are simply resisting change that he has put in place since he became director four years ago. Both sides agree that the dispute began three years ago when Richard changed past policies regarding work schedules and pay. The dispute deepened earlier this year when Richard began the first phrase of the renovation project by asking employees to weed out--and discard--thousands of books to make room for new ones. The weeding disturbed many of the librarians who did not want to discard any books, according to the library board's report.

Richard downplays the weeding controversy and said the librarians were given several months' notice of the procedure and that all the books were carefully screened. Books were only discarded if they had not been checked out at least once over the past three years.

Richard is convinced that the city's employee union is responsible for continuing the dispute. He notes that union president Ed Bentley, a supervisor at the city's car-fleet division, is up for reelection and that the city employee contract is up for renewal next year.

If people are so upset, Richard says, why has no one come forward with a specific complaint to him or the city's civil service department, which settles employee grievances.

"This dispute has been run like a campaign," Richard said. "The charges have been unsubstantiated and come from anonymous rumors. There's never been a specific incident, and it's always been vague."

Bentley said the union contract and his reelection have nothing to do with Richard.

"The dispute has been going on for two years," Bentley said. "This is not about contracts or the union. This is about how afraid the employees are."

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