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Wednesday, April 17, 2024
Editorial: A crisis at the NOTL Public Library
The Lake Report's weekly editorial. File

The irony of Niagara-on-the-Lake chief librarian Cathy Simpson being fired over an opinion piece about Freedom to Read Week should not be lost on anyone.

There were a few complaints, including an internal letter signed by some library staff members who objected to what Simpson wrote, plus at least one vocal letter to the editor that criticized some of the content of a Feb. 22 guest column that Simpson authored in The Lake Report.

As a result, she was dismissed from the position she held for the past 11 years.

The entire affair is distasteful and unfortunate.

It appears to have ended the career of a 60-year-old executive and civil servant about four years before she probably would have retired.

And it likely will end up costing the library — funded in large part by the taxpayers of Niagara-on-the-Lake — more than $100,000 in severance payments, plus more in legal costs.

If Simpson opts to fight the library and launch a wrongful dismissal suit, the board and taxpayers could be on the hook for thousands more. Plus the deliberations that led to here firing would be put under the microscope.

A lot of questions remain about the dismissal, the debate about the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR) and the role of public libraries in a free, though some might say splintered, society.

There appear to be few easy answers — and in most cases, we might never have them.

Still, one thing is certain: Under our laws, outside of a unionized environment, an employer is entitled to part ways with an individual. They don’t really need a reason or just cause, nor do they necessarily have to justify it to anyone.

The only variable is how much the employer ends up paying the fired person in severance. Sometimes it can be substantial.

And yes, there have been numerous instances over the years in which a senior person has been turfed because comments they made or something they did reflected badly on their employer.

But we don’t recall any involving a public library, which is viewed by many as a bastion of free expression and a forum for various viewpoints.

This situation is complex.

We believe it is essential to have frank and open discussion of the subjects raised by this crisis — from free expression to a person’s duty to their employer. To name a few.

So, let’s look at some of the questions that have been asked about the firing of Simpson and the circumstances surrounding it.

We won’t touch on them all nor will we suggest that we know better than the library board.

For starters, we don’t have all the information the eight-member board had. There’s just too much we do not know about the entire affair. But:

Was firing Simpson the right decision? The only alternative?

Was the criticism valid that she espoused right-wing talking points propagated by a U.S.-based organization, the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism?

Did the NOTL Public Library board — an organization comprised of some highly experienced and esteemed professionals — overreact?

Or act too quickly? Or give too much weight to the public criticism directed at Simpson and the library?

Or, given the circumstances, the complaints, the concerns voiced by the staff of the library, did the board simply make the tough decision and do the right thing?

Should the board have conducted more due diligence and research? Would it have mattered? Was the relationship too fractured?

Is this an instance in which the board should have backed its CEO against the finger-pointing and blaming?

Should the complaints of just a few people be sufficient to effectively derail the career of an administrator who by all accounts was widely respected?

Were those complaints and criticisms valid? Were some of them overstated or taken out of context?

Everyone can have an opinion, but few can really know the full story behind such an internal crisis.

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