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Handbook for Library Trustees of New York State (2023 Edition)

Content from the latest edition of the Trustee Handbook.

Ethics and Conflicts of Interest

Accountability and ethics are critical ingredients for any public organization. As public libraries continue to develop, expand and rely to a far greater extent on the support of local taxpayers, it is essential for every library board to have in place a policy clearly stating the ethical principles upon which they work and the guidelines by which they handle perceived, potential, or actual conflicts of interest. In every decision, trustees should be sensitive to even the appearance of impropriety.

In this context, trustees or their families may not enter into a business relationship with the library, even if they are providing a service below cost. 

Board members and staff must be transparent about conflicts of interest. A conflict of interest policy and disclosure form are now required for all libraries in New York State, given the Department of Education’s Office of Counsel ruling on how Not-for-Profit Corporation Law applies to libraries. The Act specifies particular issues to be addressed in a library’s conflict of interest policy and for each trustee to file a disclosure form annually with the library. For more information visit Non-Profit Revitalization Act (2013) and NYS Libraries and Library Systems on the New York State Library’s website.

In a similar fashion, Library Boards are strongly encouraged to adopt anti-nepotism policies to address the management and public relations issues surrounding the employment of both trustees’ and staff family members. Should you find a pre-existing nepotism situation at the library, it is critical to review with managers appropriate communication channels and authority. Trustees in conflict in this area may need to recuse themselves from certain votes (e.g., union contracts, salary increases, etc.)  that would impact their relative(s).

The New York State Education Department’s “Report Fraud, Waste, and Abuse” website often receives complaints challenging the actions of library boards that have approved the hiring of relatives of board members as either staff or as vendors. The public perceives such actions as inappropriate and, in the interests of stewardship, accountability and transparency, library boards are strongly advised against such actions.

Trustees should also avoid serving on the same library board with their spouse or other close family members. Indeed, school districts (and by default, school district libraries) are prohibited under Education Law §2103(3) from having more than one family member (defined by the Attorney General as a “member of the household”) on the Board. As per the Board of Regents’ Statement on the Governance Role of a Trustee or Board member, “…Care must be taken at all times to ensure that family and/or personal relationships do not inappropriately influence a trustee’s/board member’s decision-making…”. In the absence of clear guidance by Education Law, public libraries are well advised to adhere to opinions related to their governing authority or jurisdiction.  Indeed, common sense and best practice dictates that all library boards should avoid such a situation.

Though not necessarily an ethical or legal issue, “appropriate and professional” behavior by board members is every trustee’s concern and responsibility. You reflect the library to the community. The most successful boards have a positive culture of mutual respect, understanding, and inclusivity. To this end, Boards should adopt both a Code of Ethics and an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Statement so that expectations of behavior are clearly stated. 

All trustees are also mandated to annually take Sexual Harassment Prevention Training as per New York State Human Rights Law. This training does not count towards the minimum of two hours of trustee education mandated by New York State Education Law, it is in addition to that mandate. 

When any member acts in a manner that is not in the best interests of the library or in the cooperative nature of the Board, the Board President should discuss the issue with the trustee in a direct and constructive manner. Violations of the Board’s Code of Ethics can be the basis of the dismissal of a trustee from the Board following due process, and this should be made clear in the removal of a trustee clause of the library’s bylaws. When the Board President is acting in a manner that is not in the best interest of the library or in the cooperative nature of the Board, the officers of the Board should address this issue with the Board President. All trustees must take responsibility for holding each other accountable. 

Related Policies and Documents:

  • Anti-Bullying
  • Code of Ethics/Conduct 
  • Conflict of Interest 
  • Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Statement
  • Anti-Nepotism 
  • Whistleblower Protection 
  • Sexual Harassment Prevention
  • Workplace Safety/Violence Prevention