The ax has finally fallen on Kamala Stillwell, director of the Maricopa County Library District, who has been involved in a bitter, years-long fight with County Manager Roy Pederson about how the district spends its money.
On September 22, after a brief executive session, the county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to dismiss Stillwell from the post she has held for six years.
Stillwell says she was given no specific reasons for her firing, but believes it was at least partially prompted by comments she made to New Times about her feud with the county manager (The Ax Man Cometh," September 1).
"I think it's a clear case of retaliation for my having spoken to the press," she says. "I would not have been dismissed in the way I was had I not been straightforward in what I said." (Pederson and Board Chairman Jim Bruner could not be reached for comment.)
Stillwell was hired in 1987 as the first director of the county's newly created library district. Since then, she has built from scratch a 12-branch system with an annual budget of about $10 million and 120 employees.
She has been praised for overseeing the construction of a $6 million, state-of-the-art library and headquarters building on North 32nd Street, and has won fierce loyalty from district employees.
But Stillwell has also clashed with other Valley librarians, primarily in disputes about dividing the spoils of the library district's tax levy.
Several city librarians have sought to have some of the tax money passed along to their systems, but Stillwell has refused. Backed by legal opinions from both the state attorney general and the county attorney, she contends that it is illegal for district money to be funneled to city libraries.
That position got her crosswise with Pederson, a former Scottsdale city manager who assumed the county manager's post about three years ago.
Pederson, Stillwell and other county insiders say, has tried at least twice before to have her fired. Last July, the county began advertising for a new director, a fact Stillwell learned when she picked up her Sunday newspaper and saw the ad for her job.
Before her firing, Stillwell had filed a claim with the county contesting what appeared to be her imminent dismissal.
But two weeks ago, Stillwell and her attorney say, she was told to show up at a Board of Supervisors meeting to discuss her "employment situation." (The Board of Supervisors also acts as the Board of Directors of the library district, which is an independent entity under state statute.)
Although state law says a library district director can be fired for cause only after a hearing, Stillwell and her supporters were not given a chance to address the board, says Stan Lubin, her attorney.
The board discussed her firing in private, then convened in public for a formal vote.
"The whole thing was outrageous," Lubin says. "It was a witch hunt."
Stillwell says she will now decide whether to sue the county over her dismissal, which she and Lubin argue was illegal.
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By law, they say, the library director is supposed to report directly to the board, and the county manager should play no role in the director's employment or administration of the district.
But the board, they say, has allowed Pederson to illegally assume oversight--and now control--of the district.
After Stillwell's firing, the chairman and vice chairman of the district's Citizens' Advisory Committee resigned in protest.
Stillwell says she is still reeling from the suddenness of her dismissal, and does not know what she will do next. "I'm still in decompression mode and examining a number of options," she says.