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Gulf Beaches library faces second lawsuit threat

MADEIRA BEACH — The Gulf Beaches Public Library is facing a second threatened lawsuit from a fired employee — this time for alleged racial discrimination.

Harriet Thompkins was let go as the library's assistant director and reference librarian last month when her position was eliminated as a budget-cutting measure.

Thompkins' firing followed that of library director Jan Horah amid controversy over her financial management of the library.

In a letter to the library, Thompkins' attorney, Craig Berman, cited the firing of its "top two officials, both of whom happen to be black" and who were "replaced with white subordinates."

"A jury will have substantial questions about whether my client's race was a motivating (factor)" in her firing, Berman said.

He charged that secret meetings occurred before Thompkins was fired, violating the state's Sunshine Law.

The now acting director, Travis Sherman, was Thompkins' subordinate and "leapfrogged" her to assume the new job, according to Berman.

The firing of both Horah and Thompkins is a "sordid story," Berman said, noting that "following the termination of two highly qualified black employees, Treasure Island is now willing to kick in half of its share of the budget."

The controversy over Horah's financial stewardship of the library began when Treasure Island decided to cut its contribution to the library.

Treasure Island officials strongly criticized Horah for what they viewed as her refusal to forward requested financial information on the library's operations.

Madeira Beach subsequently limited its funding to three months and promised continued funding only after the library made substantial budget cuts.

After Horah revealed that the library had about $500,000 in cash reserves, including $300,000 not reported to the board, the library board voted to fire her and use a portion of that reserve to cover half its member town contributions for the coming year.

Treasure Island, Madeira Beach, Redington Beach, North Redington Beach and Redington Shores form a consortium that financially supports the library.

Berman contends that the library's "extensive cash reserves" were meant to cover such situations and there was no financial need to fire Thompkins.

He asked if the board "has a sincere interest in resolving this issue before legal proceedings are commenced" in both federal and state court.

Last month, Horah's attorney, John D. Goldsmith, also threatened to sue the library for "wrongful termination" if the library's board did not agree to a settlement.

"The additional $300,000 in reserves is proof of her competence, not grounds for a humiliating and immediate dismissal," Goldsmith said.

Horah was "dismissed without warning," but her contract called for a verbal warning to be given first, followed by written warnings, according to Goldsmith.

On Monday, the library's board of trustees declined to discuss Berman's letter and referred it to the library's attorney, Andy Salzman.

The board voted to schedule a nonpublic meeting with Salzman to discuss both threatened lawsuits.

In other business, the board voted to advertise for a new library director at a minimum starting salary of $50,000, significantly less than Horah's salary of $69,436.

Gulf Beaches library faces second lawsuit threat 12/09/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 10:08pm]
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