With 3 seats available, 6 Library Board candidates cover plenty of ground in virtual forum
The race for the Wilmette Library Board of Trustees is another that is guaranteed to see at least one new face in the winner’s circle after Election Day.
Six candidates, including two incumbents, are vying for three seats on the board. Trustee Dan Johnson is not seeking reelection.
Familiar face Ron Rodgers, who has been a library trustee for nearly 40 years (since 1984), is back on the ballot with fellow Trustee Stuart Wolf and newcomers Patricia Nealon, Mary Anne O’Keefe, Tracy Sommer and Julie Cho, who is also running for the New Trier High School District 203 Board of Education.
Profiles of all six candidates were collected and published by the League of Women Voters of Wilmette, which also held a forum for the race on Saturday, March 20. A video of that forum is below.
A summarized transcription of the event, which has at times been edited to enhance clarity, is below. Use the shortcuts to a desired question or candidate response.
Candidates answered in an order selected at random by the League of Women Voters.
• INTRODUCTIONS: Julie Cho | Mary Ann O’Keefe | Ronald Rodgers | Patricia Nealon | Tracy Sommer | Stuart Wolf
• ROLE OF LIBRARY: Julie Cho | Mary Ann O’Keefe | Ronald Rodgers | Patricia Nealon | Tracy Sommer | Stuart Wolf
• DISTINGUISHES YOU: Julie Cho | Mary Ann O’Keefe | Ronald Rodgers | Patricia Nealon | Tracy Sommer | Stuart Wolf
• LIBRARY FUNDING RESERVES: Julie Cho | Mary Ann O’Keefe | Ronald Rodgers | Patricia Nealon | Tracy Sommer | Stuart Wolf
• QUICK-RESPONSE QUESTIONS: How often do you use the library? | What library resources do you use most often? | What’s the best book you’ve read in 2021 so far? | How many library board meetings have you attended in the last year?
• SUMMATIONS: Julie Cho | Mary Ann O’Keefe | Ronald Rodgers | Patricia Nealon | Tracy Sommer | Stuart Wolf
CHO: I have three school-aged kids. The library has always been a big part of my family’s life. So when we were living in the city when the kids were still very little — I’m talking about 2, 3, 4 years old — we would take a weekly trip to Harold Washington library. … We moved to Wilmette when our kids were old enough to go to school and the Wilmette library has been the highlight of our Wilmette residency experience. So, the reason I’m running is because the library has been such a big part of our lives, and when the pandemic happened, it posed a lot of challenges that we did not face before, and my educational and professional experience include: I have an MBA from the University of Chicago, as well as a public policy degree from the University of Chicago, and I’ve been in roles in all my working life for large nonprofit hospitals where I identify issues and resolve problems for all parties concerned for the best and most efficient and effective operations. So I want to make sure that our library always stays an efficient and effective center of education and learning for all of our residents in Wilmette and I would like to really offer my skill set, my experience to achieve this goal for our library, to be as as excellent as possible, that it has always been for my family.
O’KEEFE: I’m very excited to be running this year for library trustee. For those of you who don’t know me, I have a legal background. I am a licensed attorney with insurance coverage and commercial litigation experience. Why do I want to join the board of trustees? I’m very interested to expand my experience, and I’m very interested to be a part of this village organization. For the past six years I’ve been a part of the Friends of the Library. For four, I was the secretary and for the last two years I’ve also been the volunteer president. And one of our treasures in Wilmette is our library, and I think I would bring a fresh, objective voice as a new trustee. And I look forward to collaborating with all of the library administration, as well as all the trustees on the board.
RODGERS: I’m the old guy. I’ve been on the board for many years. Despite some concerns over matters such as term limits, we have term limits: we call them elections. And I’ve been reelected to the board because people are happy with the library services they’ve received. I’ve been a part of that for many years. Last fall, the Online Library Association honored me as the 2020 library trustee of the year. I’m committed to continuing the excellent services that we’ve had. We’ve won national awards the last several years based largely on the participation of users of the library. My primary goal is to continue the excellent levels of service that we provide, and to do so with a minimal tax burden. We’re currently at about 3 1/2 percent of Wilmette property taxes. We’ve never been above 5 percent. And I think that’s a bargain that pays off for all residents and I want to help continue that.
NEALON: I’ve lived in Wilmette for 24 years with my family, put two kids through District 39 and New Trier. By profession, I am a book editor. I work in textbook development for higher education. My clients are publishers and I work with authors and planning and revising. I’m a generalist. I work across many disciplines, from geography to social science to economics to even engineering, this year. In terms of community service, I’ve been on the board of the League of Women Voters of Wilmette for going on 10 years now, primarily working in voter services. I’ve actually set up these for forums before and I didn’t really realize how terrifying they were for candidates until now. The past two years I’ve specialized in outreach to underrepresented communities, going into Chicago and other areas of the North Shore, bringing voter registration and voter education. As trustee, I will have no agenda. I just want to bring an approach that is problem-solving, forward-looking and highly communicative, and I look forward to this discussion and to serving on the board.
SOMMER: I’m originally from Ohio. I’ve lived in Chicago since 1985 and lived in Wilmette for more than 20 years and have been an avid user of the library since we moved here. As my friends will tell you I’m a voracious reader and I read books both that are both e-reader and hardback. I have participated in programs with the library since our kids were little, doing summer reading programs, musical programs, Zoom programs during COVID. I also volunteer for Books Down Under. I recently retired in 2018 after more than 30 years in the accounting and finance area. So I think these skills would be a great asset to the library board. I love living in this community. And I think my passion is reading books in the library. I want to be a good steward of the library as well as a good steward for the taxpayers. And what better way to use my skills, and to give back to the community, but being a trustee for the library.
WOLF: I just want to say that I have loved being in Wilmette, that I’ve loved being a member of the board of trustees for the library and am very passionate about what I can do to support the library and all it does well and keep it as relevant to the community as possible, as the needs of the community, as the world changes in terms of what a library can do as a resource for the community. … And as I think most of us know our library is one of the busiest libraries in the country. We have a very vibrant community that is very connected to the library. It’s very important also to me that we continue to reach out to as many members of the community as possible. They’re the people that are on this Zoom call today. Thank you very much for being here. You’re obviously the ones that are connected to the library already. And one of my goals is to get others that are not yet connected to have that same kind of interest, and involvement and benefit from the library that I imagine all of you who are on this Zoom call are as well. My background: I’ve lived in Wilmette for almost 25 years, and I found it interesting that my relationship with the library as a patron has kind of evolved from being a parent of young children who love to go to the library as a place for an event, as a way to experience books and other experiences, and then as I went on, I have a background in marketing, and more recently transitioned into becoming a TV film producer. My peers call me a creative producer, which means I’m also writing scripts. My most recent TV series, which is in-pitch now in Hollywood, is about the history of the feminist revolution from post Civil War through present day. And guess what? The library has been a phenomenal resource for me in terms of finding books to draw some of my script writing from. So I have this connection to the library both as a parent (and) as a professional.
What do you see as the library’s role in the community?
O’KEEFE: I think for our village of Wilmette the library is one of our central community places, it’s almost a third space. So, you have your home, you may have your workspace — not this year — but the library is our community connecting point. And as that, it serves a role and a purpose for so many people across Wilmette and Kenilworth, but also for anyone who wants to come into the library. And when you do come into the Wilmette library, you feel welcome. Whether or not it’s by the people at circulation, you know, the librarians. It is one of our focal points, and our meeting places that brings our students together, our teachers, and it’s just this phenomenal resource that has been created and developed, and that we as the board of trustees need to continue to do so. It’s one of our favorite places to go. Even during COVID, my children and I have done some of the various virtual presentations, and I just view our library as one of Wilmette’s focal points of coming together.
RODGERS: Wilmette is a community of active readers. Generations of children have learned to read using our library’s resources, including our own son who is now 40. Obviously he’s gone way past learning to read. My primary goal is to continue to support the staff of the library, provide excellent services, materials, and assistance to library patrons. Our primary objective as a board is to support the staff, and to ensure that the community’s needs as they express in our long-range planning activities every few years are being addressed as well as we can. That is the reason why in the past few years, we’ve been recognized by Library Journal, as having one of the best libraries in the country. And that’s a reflection on the fact that this is a community that uses the library quite actively. So, our goal is to continue to provide those services as the pandemic eases, and we all manage to get vaccines. It’s possible then we may be able to open up the library and continue the services that we provided before the pandemic.
NEALON: I think it’s a central point of community meeting, where we can all be equal, where we all receive wonderful service from the librarians. Albert Einstein even said the only thing you need to know is the location of the library. So you can go there and just sit and be quiet and get a study room, because you have to get out of your house, or whatever you need. And just have some peace. Or you can go there and have meetings in the conference rooms or attend presentations. This year online it was actually a little bit easier sometimes to connect, if you couldn’t get to the library. Physically, you know sometimes you have to get out of the house and it’s not so easy and so you just click in your online and the library is adaptable someplace of civility and I’m really grateful for the library in our community.
SOMMER: I probably won’t spend much time because candidate O’Keefe and candidate Nealon pretty much answered the same question. The library has never been more relevant, particularly during this pandemic, where it’s an equalizer in the community, enabling people to get in, use computer services to be able to do research for jobs. It’s just a great community meeting place. We’ve done Zoom programs, we’ve done in-person programs. And that’s about all because I think candidate Nealon and candidate O’Keefe answered the question.
WOLF: So I’ve already spoke to some of my goals but really it’s all about the library. It has been so relevant in my experiences as a member of the community and to keep that relevance going again as life circumstances change for the community, for individuals in the community as well. Life changes in general, whether it’s the COVID pandemic or other kinds of circumstances that come along, the library can continue to evolve in a way to keep its level of service to the community. And so that’s basically my main goal.
CHO: it’s very relevant to mine and my family. I think the library is the resource for our residents in our community. And it’s the is the epicenter for education for the whole family, or we can have fun and expand our horizons and we connect with our friends through the books that we get at the library, the wealth of information and programs offered. That’s the way the library has been to our family so I believe that that is the role of the library and it needs to continue with that role.
What distinguishes you from the other candidates running for the library board?
RODGERS: In a word: experience. I’ve worked with elected boards, first as a newspaper editor and reporter, and for many years now, as the developer of licensure and certification exams for the state of Illinois in the city of Chicago. I’ve worked as a member of the library board for many years. And that perspective, I think is beneficial to the community and to the services that we provide.
NEALON: OK, I forgot to mention in my introduction that in 2012 or ’13 I had the idea to start the League of Women Voters library book discussion group. So I have been a regular facilitator of that group for eight years or so, and I just have an involvement with the library. So, candidate Rodgers used one word, and I would say: involvement. I would love to stay involved in a more innovative way with the library so I want to be a trustee.
SOMMER: I think what distinguishes me is my extensive experience in accounting and finance. I’ve worked for for-profit and not-for-profit entities for more than 30 years, and I have experience reviewing financial statements, budgeting, monthly reporting. I’m a voracious reader and, I think, to be honest, my financial experience would be a great asset to the library in the trustee board.
WOLF: Like Trustee Rodgers, I have experience as a board member. I also have a lot of experience, as I said earlier, in my various connections to the library as a patron. I also like to observe other libraries as a way to keep in perspective what our library does well and to make it better. I also have a background in finance to help with the library finances, which are very significant to the community as well.
CHO: I am an immigrant from Korea. I came to this country when I was 16 years old, and in Wilmette there is a growing number of immigrant families. And I think me being an immigrant, having grown up in an immigrant family, I understand the different set of needs and concerns that these immigrant families have. I think we can reflect in the role of the board, having someone like me on the board, we can really have full representation of the entire community.
O’KEEFE: What distinguishes me from the other fabulous candidates is that I have a legal background. I love to review contracts, and that would be a skill set to bring to the board of trustees when different projects and presentations are coming before us. Also my six-year involvement with the Friends of the Wilmette Public Library, and my experience doing so. And the relationship with the various library administration from that experience.
Do you feel that the library’s reserves are where they should be? Please explain.
NEALON: Actually I don’t. The library just approved the policy of reserves that set them at six months to 12 months of the operating budget and I believe we’re above that right now. So I would look at tools that would give us more of a prediction of how we can plan for the future to balance the reserves more carefully. I do believe there are financial tools out there. I’m not a financial expert. I would rely on the minds of others in this area. But I don’t think this question would be asked if there were not people in the community who are concerned about this issue. I believe that the decision should be brought to the community. …There is transparency in the library’s financial picture; if you look on the website it’s all there. The numbers are all there, but that belies the fact that the reserves are out of balance.
SOMMER: I agree with candidate Nealon that I do not believe that the library’s reserves are in line. Currently, the special reserve fund has about $6 million, whereas the general fund has about $9 million, which is a total of $15 million. If y’all read, you’d know that. They did a long-term capital plan, which estimates for the next 20 years, they’ll need about $7.7 million to cover these expenses. I believe that they need to start chipping away at that unrestricted funds. Nine million dollars way exceeds even the new financial and investment policy, which is 6 to 12 months, which would be about $6 million. I believe to address this they should consider keeping the tax levy flat, or perhaps decreasing it in order to start chipping away at that those excessive funds. Library staff prepare annual budgets and I think they need to be scrutinized and be careful that they are as accurate as possible without overstating to create a padding.
WOLF: We just did finish this 20-year capital-reserve study, and as we decided, the money that we have that is in there now is going to be used very, very effectively and very efficiently over the next 20 years. And so I think the reserve is probably a little higher than it should have been but that’s because of the nature of how we can manage the money by Illinois state law and library law in the state. So we’ve actually done, it’s an issue I don’t think I can answer in the brief amount of time I have, but suffice to say that we try to be as transparent as possible, and the number kind of skews the issue. I would love to have more time to speak to it. And anybody who has questions about it I urge them to please reach out to anybody on the board to email with questions. I’m happy to get into a discussion about it but I really do believe that we are being very fiscally responsible in what we’re doing. And we’re keeping the community from having any major expenditures, like a referendum or anything else where we’d have to come back to their community for money down the line and and we’re doing things to keep the library functioning as best as possible for the community, which would be a bigger problem than what is perceived as a problem now with with the reserve.
CHO: So I don’t think without knowing the intimate details of the budget and especially the mission and the goals of the library that goes with a budget, I don’t think I’m in a position to be giving an answer to that question, because I think the mission and the goal of the library also needs to reflect the voices and the needs of the community and the residents and the taxpayers. So I don’t know what it is, because I haven’t been involved in the planning, I don’t know what it is that our residents in Wilmette want to see, what it is that they would like to see as part of the planning. Without having that information I think it’s difficult for me to say we have the comfortable level of reserves or not. … So, I would like to be able to get into that conversation and I agree with I think it was candidate Nealon that we need to take it to the community and incorporate their feedback and voices into it.
O’KEEFE: This was something before I really got involved with attending trustee meetings virtually, and looking into the finances that I wasn’t really aware of. And it’s fascinating to me that the library does have over $14 million in reserves. You can look at that as a great safety net. We as a library now are allowed to do these capital projects over the next 20 years. I believe it’s estimated that it’s approximately almost $400,000, about 386,000, per year that’s going to be needed to improve the various capital aspects of our library. So we’re in a great position. We have a lot of cash, but what we have to do as a board of trustees is make sure that over the next 20 years these projects are completed, met on time. We also need to make sure that we are not levied more and that when we have our budget every year that we’re meeting that budget, and we’re making sure that we spend everything that is coming in. So I think the large reserve is a wonderful thing to have at this point for our community.
RODGERS: I think the first problem in terms of discussing reserves is that it doesn’t put things into context, unless you look at the broader picture. The library’s capital needs study only looked at the physical plant, the building and the grounds. It does not include for example, capital needs such as computers, updating servers, network requirements. It doesn’t include changes that might emerge from the long-range planning process in the community. Also a correction is needed in terms of the perspective on the library’s tax rate. We have maintained a flat or reduced levy for the past six years, and the library has not levied at the maximum rate approved by the residents since 2005. So, operating under the tax cap requires longer range perspective and planning than might have been true when we didn’t have a tax cap, and the management of these services and reserves is a part of that picture.
How many times a month do you use the library?
SOMMER: Every day, I have something checked out from the library all the time.
WOLF: I’d say five times a week.
CHO: It’s about two or three times a week.
O’KEEFE: Five to 10 times a month.
RODGERS: I use the library online more than I use the direct collection, but I use the library extensively in my work. Much of what I need is not in the Wilmette collection.
NEALON: I would say five times a week but you know with online and offline, it’s super variable now.
What library resources do you use most often?
WOLF: The No. 1 will be online catalogue, as I mentioned before, it has to be researching different types of sources of information I need for my work.
CHO: It’s books for my kids.
O’KEEFE: Children’s activities, whether it’s a virtual “Mandalorian” trivia night and definitely for the children.
RODGERS: Investment resources and online collections.
NEALON: I use Libby, the online library reserve system, and I listen to a lot of audiobooks too.
SOMMER: I use Libby extensively, as well as checking hardback books out of the library.
What’s the best book you’ve read in 2021 so far?
CHO: Oh, I can’t remember the exact name, but I was reading with my kid, my 9-year-old son, it was “Lafayette!”, about an 18-year-old French guy fighting in the American Revolutionary War.
O’KEEFE: Probably “Troubled Blood,” by Robert Galbraith, JK Rowling’s pseudonym.
RODGERS: The book by Donald Trump’s niece (“Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man,” by Mary L. Trump), her assessment of how we ended up with him in that office.
NEALON: The “Overstory,” by Richard Powers, how trees talk to each other and the human relationship with nature.
SOMMER: I would say, either “The Push,” which is a psychological thriller, which I finished yesterday, or “Rising Out of Hatred” (The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist) by I think it’s Eli Saslow.
WOLF: I’m reading two books simultaneously, that I love. One is “The Woman Who Would Become President,” about Victoria Woodhall the first woman to run for president of the United States, post Civil War. And then, inspired by my son, a book in the Witcher series called “The Season of Storms.”
How many library board meetings have you attended in the last year?
O’KEEFE: Four virtually
RODGERS: All of them
NEALON: About five virtually, and I kind of dug back into last year as well.
SOMMER: I attended the three from 2021 live Zoom and then I’ve looked back on probably two more in 2020, so probably five.
WOLF: Every board meeting but one that I had a family death, and also we’ve had several policy and committee meetings that I attend regularly both in 2021 and in the last several months we have before that as well.
CHO: I’ve watched one on Zoom.
WOLF: I believe in hearing everybody today that I feel very comfortable with any of you becoming members of the board so I wish everybody great luck in great success if you do become a board member. It’s been an amazing experience for me. I feel I have a lot that I can still offer as a board member based again on … what I’ve experienced and what I think I can do going forward. I feel very, very strongly that I will be a very big asset to the board.
SOMMER: I think I would make a good trustee based on my work experience in finance and accounting, as well as my passion for the library. I believe that if I’m elected as a trustee. I would serve as a good steward for the community as well as a good steward for the library.
NEALON: I didn’t get a chance to talk about my vision. I wrote down a few points. … I am really looking forward to helping the library move forward with its new strategic plan. I have a lot of ideas on maybe setting up a volunteer program, working with their marketing plan, communicating with the public in unique ways because everybody wants to hear information in different ways. And I want to invite nonusers to use library services. I want to enhance children’s services. They’re already wonderful, but I think there’s some more we can do. And maybe grab teens a little more and work with other community organizations, and work, enter governmentally as well to enhance our services with the Village Board, park district, schools.
RODGERS: I served on the library board longer than any other candidate, and that’s because of my devotion to maintaining public libraries, in general, and the Wilmette library in particular, as a community resource. I think the best evidence of that for us is our long-range planning process every few years in which we survey and conduct focus groups and other means to gather information about what kinds of services Wilmette residents want from their public library. We’re about to begin that process again during the next year. And that’s an opportunity for us to learn what the community wants, and also to inform ourselves about how best to meet the needs of Wilmette residents.
O’KEEFE: I would be very excited to be a trustee for the next four years. I have strong analytical skills. I have a devotion to the library that I’ve, for the past six years, been a part of the Friends of the Library, which is just a fantastic organization with volunteers and Books Down Under, and I can collaborate with the current trustees, as well as the administration. So I hope that when you are considering one of the new candidates that you vote for me, and you consider a new fresh voice, and then objective voice.
CHO: I think the board is a representative of the Wilmette residents with its legal and fiduciary responsibilities to the residents of Wilmette, always make sure that the board represents all residents fairly and equally, and it will reflect the residents’ needs and concerns for some feedback in the decision-making process. I’ll do everything I can to ensure that our library always stays the epicenter of our education and learning.
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