Public libraries are required by the Regulations of Commissioner of Education of New York State (Education Department Regulations [8 NYCRR] § 90.2) to operate under written bylaws. Bylaws are "the set of rules adopted by an organization defining its structure and governing its functions." (Sturgis, The Standard Handbook of Parliamentary Procedure; third edition, new and revised, p. 257).
Bylaws may not conflict with federal or state law and regulations; nor the library’s charter. Such law and regulation is the highest authority governing the library's affairs.
A board will probably find it appropriate to tailor its bylaws to local needs and situations. The bylaws should be reviewed periodically and amended when necessary to maintain flexibility and relevance. Nonetheless, bylaws must conform to the library’s charter of incorporation and, if applicable, enabling legislation.
All bylaws should must be updated every five years and posted on the library’s website. They should include the following provisions:
Trustees and officers, including the Library Treasurer and Library District Clerk, of municipal, school district, and special legislative district public libraries, and trustees of cooperative and federated library systems are required to file the oath of office specified in the New York State Constitution. It is now recommended that library directors take the oath as well:
"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and the constitution of the State of New York, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of trustee of the ________Library, according to the best of my ability."
The oath may be given by any officer of the court (judge, attorney, notary public), or the library's board president or district clerk if they have taken an oath of office, and must be filed in the local county clerk’s office (or with the town clerk for town library trustees). For a trustee, treasurer or district clerk, failure to do so within 30 days of commencing their term of office will vacate the position.
For libraries with an appointed or elected board it is good practice for the board to request a formal letter or certificate of appointment or election for each new trustee from the body that made the appointment or conducted the election.
Though in the past Library Directors have not generally taken the oath, the Commissioner of Education, in a decision related to a similar practice for School Superintendents, stated “…it is sound public policy to treat school superintendents as public officers with respect to oaths of office.” Given that libraries are part of the education infrastructure and fall under the auspices of the Commissioner of Education, we would consider it as a “best practice” to do likewise for the Director as Chief Executive Officer of a public library. Taking the Oath is yet another examples of how libraries can demonstrate a commitment to accountability and transparency.
Under New York State law, a library board has broad authority to manage the affairs of the library, but it is a collective authority. Individual trustees, regardless of their position on the board, do not have the power to command the services of a library staff member, nor to speak or act on behalf of the library, unless they have been specifically granted that authority by a vote of the board.
An important corollary to this concept of collective authority is the need for the board to speak with one voice once a decision has been made. Debate, discussion, and even disagreement over an issue are an important part of policy development and the decision making process. However, every trustee has an ethical obligation to publicly support an adopted board decision.
The First Amendment protects the rights of a trustee who disagrees so strongly with a board decision that he or she must speak out publicly against it. However, in such instances the individual must make it clear to all concerned that they do not represent the library and, indeed, may wish to seriously consider resigning from the board if such action interferes with their ability to effectively fulfill their responsibilities as a trustee.
The library’s bylaws define the duties of the board officers, typically the President, Vice-President, Secretary and Treasurer/Finance Officer. Such officers are elected annually by the Board at an annual reorganization meeting and serve for a period of one year.
The President presides at all meetings of the Board, and is responsible for the proper conduct and effectiveness of such meetings. They authorize the call for any special meetings, appoints committee members, execute all documents authorized by the Board and generally perform all duties associated with that office. The Board President also serves as the primary liaison between the board and the director.
The Vice President assumes the duties of the President in their absence.
The Secretary is responsible for an accurate and timely record of all meetings of the Board, issues notice of all meetings, and performs other duties associated with that office.
The office of Treasurer varies greatly, depending upon the library’s legal structure. School district and many special legislative district libraries must appoint (hire) an independent Treasurer who is not a member of the Board. Under the provisions of Education Law §259(1)(a) this independent officer reports to the board and is responsible for the receipt and disbursement of tax monies after Board approval.
Special legislative district libraries should refer to their enabling legislation for clarification. In the case of school district libraries, the school district treasurer is required to act in this capacity unless the library board appoints its own Treasurer.
Municipal libraries that exercise their right under Education Law §259(1)(a) to request their tax appropriations be paid over to the library are strongly advised to appoint an independent Treasurer. In the case of municipal libraries where tax funds are held, and invoices are paid by the municipality, the Treasurer of the municipality serves in this capacity.
The State Comptroller has repeatedly opined that the doctrine of “incompatibility of office” applies to school district, municipal and special legislative district libraries (according to their enabling legislation). This is often applied to the appointment of a board member to the office of Treasurer. In such cases it is considered a best practice to appoint (hire) an independent Treasurer and appoint a trustee as the board’s “Finance Officer” who would oversee the regular audit of claims, chair the board budget committee and otherwise serve in such a capacity. (Visit The Role of the Public Library Treasurer in the appendices for more information.)
Many libraries, either by choice (School District Public Libraries) or legislation (Special District Public Libraries) appoint a Library District Clerk. The primary duty of the district clerk is to oversee the annual trustee and budget vote. Many district clerks also perform “secretarial” duties at Board meetings; taking minutes which they submit to the Board Secretary for review and submission to the Board.
This position is often filled by a library employee but is considered a separate appointment, answerable to the Board, with a stipend in addition to any other duties. As an “officer of the corporation” the district clerk must take an Oath of Office.
Neither the Library Treasurer nor District Clerk are part of the competitive class of civil service but, as part time Library employees, must still comply with local civil service rules.
Association libraries are not governed by these restrictions and may appoint a trustee as Treasurer to oversee the receipt and disbursement of library funds, report to the board and otherwise fulfill the duties of Treasurer.