City Hall

Tempe Quietly Fires Its Library Director After Years of Staff Complaints

The Tempe Public Library only looks quiet. Staffers claim the now-fired director created a hostile workplace.
The Tempe Public Library only looks quiet. Staffers claim the now-fired director created a hostile workplace. Ray Stern
Spying, name-calling, workplace intrigue, a hostile environment: the Tempe Public Library in recent years might make pretty good fodder for a book.

City of Tempe officials are not hoping for a bestseller, though: After years of complaints from staff, they fired former library director Kathy Husser in December and replaced her without a press release or any other announcement. The temporary director put in Husser's place, Micah Corporaal, resigned three months later.

True to form for a bunch of librarians, Phoenix New Times got a collective "shhhh" when asking for comment on this article. A tip by one library worker, however, pointed New Times to city documents that reveal details of the drama.

Part of the problem, as the documents show, was how long it took Tempe to address the complaints of an abusive manager. That was also an issue raised by the staff of the city's public works department three years ago during an investigation into abusive managers that led to the firing in October 2018 of that department's director.

Husser was pegged as a bad manager by some library staff members not long after she was hired five years ago, the documents show.

She came to the Tempe Public Library, located at 3500 South Rural Road, as one of the most experienced librarians in the Valley. Since 2000, she's worked in the libraries of Phoenix and Chandler, and for the Maricopa County Community Colleges. In her official capacity as deputy community services director over the library, Husser worked with leaders in Tempe and other cities to improve services, and scored in a coup in 2019 when the Tempe library became a finalist for the prestigious National Medal for Museum and Library Service.

Yet according to her staff, she managed the library with an iron fist. No shrinking violet of a librarian, Husser routinely called her co-workers names like "Bozo," "fat ass," "bitches," and "idiots," according to a grievance filed with the city in November by the United Arizona Employee Association (UAEA) labor union. Staff members perceived her as discriminatory and manipulative, controlling their lives at her whim. They were "afraid" of her, and several reportedly resigned because of her.

Besides the grievance, the city released notes from meetings in October and November with staff members who make it clear that Husser was viewed negatively from the time she started. In the city's "Safe Haven" program, which allows city workers to go outside their chain of command and talk directly to the city's human resources department, Corporaal, who resigned on February 26, said he noticed after starting with the city five years ago that the library's boss wasn't supportive of staff and had created an "us vs. them" atmosphere. Though realizing Husser wasn't "too friendly," he hoped the changes she was making to the organization would be beneficial, he told HR. Later, he came to believe that Husser had personal, often vindictive reasons for making changes.

He "became aware that her interest was to move people under a supervisor she had more control over in order to push another out," he told HR. While she showed some trust in him, in one-on-one meetings she would refer to other lower-level managers as "those bitches," and it seemed to him that "each person in management has been manipulated or utilized for Husser's personal agenda."

That agenda including targeting people she didn't like for removal.

"She is extremely suspicious and paranoid," he told HR, adding that she doesn't trust anyone except the "person in the room with her at the time and by the time that person leaves, she'll share info about that person with another."

Corporaal didn't return a message seeking comment.

Staffers told the city how Husser watched workers on the library's video surveillance system as they interacted with each other or even herself, taking notes that she'd file in case of future needs. As the staff members grew emotionally or even physically sick over their workplace, she moved to rein in the amount of sick time they could take. She made alleged comments about the appearance of staff, remarking that one with a beard looked like a "terrorist," and making inappropriate remarks about others' weight, perceived homosexuality, or union membership.

A fellow manager of Husser's told HR that she was "retiring because of Husser" but remained concerned for the welfare and safety of the staff. Husser told the manager where to find the documentation she kept on the "idiots" she didn't like in the department. When another former Tempe librarian who Husser had a "real vendetta against" retired, Husser made security guards write a report every time the ex-worker walked into the building. When the manager told Husser that what she was doing might constitute retaliation, she "started in on" the manager, saying that others found she didn't "smile enough," was a negative and angry person, and that she was taking too much sick time.

It's unclear when the city received its first official complaints about Husser, but nothing was done until mid-November, when staff members revealed that they made audio recordings of Husser in action. On November 16, union leaders notified Tempe Community Services Director Keith Burke about Husser's alleged violations, and Husser was soon put on administrative leave.

UAEA President Billy Vickers and the Tempe Supervisors Association (TSA) followed up on November 23 with a joint grievance to the city. The letter included some transcripts of Husser's own words.

"Oh, my god, she's a crazy person," Husser told one worker about another on October 6, according to the grievance. "...I have the video of when she [redacted] was interacting with me as well... So if anything were to happen, and they put me out on like, paid leave or anything, you know where everything is, and you know, to scoop it up and take it and make it secure."

Husser described watching a staffer's interaction with a security guard for five or six minutes on a surveillance camera, remarking about how the staffer "connects with any guard that's new."

Other notable recorded comments by Husser about various staffers include:

* "I can be emotional. I can take things a little personal. But bottom line, she's doing more damage, just because she's a vindictive bitch."

* "My goal is to get her ass out the door without any disruptions."

* "I don't want to supervise that bozo for all the tea in China."

* "You can be a dummy like [redacted] or even [redacted.] I'm sorry."

Vickers, summarizing the complaints, said Husser discouraged staffers from partnering with other departments "due to her negative perceptions of deputies and directors." She "created a campaign of false narratives about staff to target them, so they were isolated, bullied, or potentially fired."

In one example of her vengeance, Vickers described how Husser prevented one well-qualified staffer from applying for a position just to prevent another staffer she didn't like from moving into the vacated position.

"We believe these demonstrate a practice and pattern of retaliatory actions of Ms. Husser to harm these employees," Vickers wrote. "Ms. Husser deceived management with another false narrative about empathy and improvement in work culture; all the while, she covered up what library staff experienced, a toxic environment." Sick leave was at an "all-time high from the treatment of supervisors and employees."

Working conditions were "intolerable" in the library, and Husser had "consistently" violated numerous city policies for more than two years regarding union participation, discrimination, and upholding high ethical standards, the grievance stated. For the good of the city and current staffers, it added, Husser should be removed.

A week after the unions sent the grievance letter, Burke wrote to City Manager Andrew Ching that he recommended firing Husser because of "substantiated accusations showing the lack of integrity and respect that she has for her employees, peers and city leadership."

Husser was removed from her $130,000-a-year job the next month. She now works as a regional library manager for the Maricopa County Library District. Following Corporaal's three-month reign as acting director, a new interim director, Katie O'Connor, was appointed.

Husser did not return a message for this article.

The library is down to 22 employees as of last week, with four vacancies, according to the city.

The person who tipped New Times off to Husser's firing said it was too long in coming, and that the city should have acted sooner. That refrain was also heard in 2018, when — as New Times detailed — problems in the public works department came to a head. Staffers in that department noted that even after a long-awaited investigation was concluded in May 2018, nothing was done for months afterward.

In an October 2018 email to the public works employee, Ching apologized to employees and explained that it takes time to investigate these things:

"When there is a choice between doing something quickly, or doing it well, I will always err on the side of doing it well, because it means we can all have confidence in the outcomes and a more real sense of closure," Ching wrote then.

At New Times' request, the city released a statement about Husser's downfall, but it didn't answer a question about concerns that it had taken the city too long to deal with her.

Husser's "resignation was accepted" after the allegations were found to have merit, and "behavior displayed by the former deputy director was not in accordance with the values of the city organization," says the statement, which gives a brief recap of the action taken. "Now Community Services Department leadership, city leadership and library employees are moving forward."

The city added that it's actively recruiting a new library director.

Vickers told New Times that prior to his involvement, UAEA and TSA members "had made efforts to obtain a resolution that were unsuccessful." After reviewing the latest evidence, he'd recommended filing the formal grievance "since other efforts to date were not effective."

Yet Vickers said he couldn't confirm or deny that the city had "dragged its feet" in dealing with Husser because he's not privy to the city's "behind-the-scenes debate or evaluation of an issue."

"To be fair in perspective," he said, "at times, employees expect immediate action on an issue if they are suffering. However, the City of Tempe has to respect everyone involved, including the complaint's target, and fairly investigate the facts."

In the case of the library, that action seems to have come too late to prevent lingering bad feelings among employees.

(The article was updated to correct the first name of Katie O'Connor, the new interim director.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern