Controversy plagues the Pember

Controversy plagues the Pember
The $800,000 Capital Investment project that led to the addition of the elevator at the Pember Library and Museum of Natural History.

The declining relationship between officials and members of the Village of Granville and the Pember Museum and Library of Natural History is similar to the effect of a pressure-cooker.

The tension and stress builds and boils until it can no longer withstand the strenuous toll, and eventually explodes.

The issue at hand involves multiple key players and differing perspectives on who’s right and who’s wrong, with everyone believing their side falls within truth.

The Pember: A tricky situation

Chartered in May of 1909 as a library and given to the Village of Granville by Franklin Tanner Pember and his wife Ellen Pember, according to the Pember’s website, the library and museum has some unclear verbiage in both the charter and deed.

The 1909 charter. Obtained from Mayor Paul Labas’ Facebook page.

“The building, the structure belongs to the village,” Pember chair Mary King said. “The running of the library and the museum, he (Pember) did not want it to be political… it was very well thought out by him.”

Pember Chair Mary King

With nine members appointed by the Village of Granville Board of Trustees, three men, three women and three of any gender all residing in Granville, the Pember Board of Trustees carries out the day-to-day operation of both the library and museum.

In the 1909 deed, it is clearly written that Pember wanted zero political ties affiliated with Pember board members, and if not they would be disqualified.

Bob Tatko, the former treasurer for the Pember board, had to resign from his position to pursue his political endeavors, as he ran unsuccessfully for village mayor and village trustee against Mayor Paul Labas and Dan Brown respectively in recent years.

Bob Tatko

Throughout the deed, Pember describes the library and museum as a public library with a responsibility of the village and town of Granville to maintain and upkeep the building.

King said her passion for the Pember has been withered recently due to the back-and-forth hostility between both sides, claiming there is a “huge” lack of communication between the two boards.

“I’ve been close to quitting,” King said in a phone call. “My college degrees are in science, not in bulls**t… In their defense, I will say Mr. Pember had written that agreement very gray.”

Labas stated repeatedly that he supports King’s more than 20 years of service and passion for the Pember, as well as the importance of the museum and library to the area.

“It’s a very unique part of Granville, there’s no doubt about it,” Labas said. “The village will always stand behind the Pember… it’s just that my job is protecting the village’s neck.”

The village’s concern

What Labas is referring to is the $800,000 capital investment project that went towards the construction of the state-of-the-art and aesthetically pleasing elevator at the Pember at 33 West Main Street.

Village of Granville Mayor Paul Labas.

Labas said if the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York (DASNY) were to come to the village and inquire information regarding the project, there wouldn’t be any to give because they never received any financial reports, transactions or payouts from the Pember Board of Trustees, or by then-treasurer and project manager, Tatko.

“I don’t have anything to show them,” Labas said. “They (DASNY) nitpick every little detail.”

Tatko rejects Labas’ claim in a letter written to NYVT Media, as he developed a timeline of the progress of the process of the construction of the elevator, including approval from the village board to continue the construction of the addition, progress reports at the monthly village board meeting in June of 2018 under executive session and the unanimous approval of the New York State Department of Labor’s Northeast Supervisor Raymond B. Plante Jr.’s letter to the village board saying no prevailing wages apply to the project.

“In May 2018, the Department of Labor was contacted to provide an opinion as to the requirement of if prevailing wages were required or not required for the elevator construction. On May 29, 2018, Raymond B. Plante Jr., Northeast Supervisor, Department of Labor issued a letter stating no prevailing wages applied to the elevator project,” Tatko wrote. “On June 4, 2018, the village board approved the construction of the Pember elevator addition at their meeting, 4-0. Paul Labas (then trustee under Mayor Brian LaRose’s administration) was absent. At this same meeting, the village board approved the Department of Labor’s Raymond B. Plante Jr.’s letter establishing no prevailing wages apply to the elevator project.”

Labas said Tatko manipulated the truth to the Department of Labor, claiming Tatko told Plante Jr. the Pember building is not village property.

“It was a lie,” Labas said. “It said that it was a Free Association Library.”

As a Free Association Library, prevailing wages are not applicable, therefore lowering the cost for paying employees to do the work.

Labas provided a copy of questioning by Tatko’s legal counsel, Smith, Dominelli & Guetti LLC, that was hand delivered to the Department of Labor’s Director of Public Works Christopher Alund.

“By way of background, the Pember Library and Museum was established by a gift by deed of trust of the property by Franklin and Ellen Pember in 1909 and is a “free association library under New York Education Law Section 253,” Jay A. Smith wrote.

New York Education Law Section 253 part two describes a Free Association Library as, “construed to mean a library established and controlled, in whole or in part, by a group of private individuals operating as an association, closed corporation or as trustees under the provisions of a will or deed of trust; and the term ‘free’ as applied to a library shall be construed to mean a library maintained for the benefit and free use on equal terms of all the people of the community in which the library is located.”

The certificate of insurance is an issue of debate for the village as well.

In an email to the village side, Rosemary Macero, a lawyer representing Tatko, informed Jane Sexton representing Cool Insuring Agency via email that Tatko’s name needed to be included on the certificate of liability insurance as “owner’s representative” as additional insured. This

included Tatko Stone Corp., Pember Library and Museum and the Trustees of the Pember Library and Museum.

“Because of this, the Pember was provided a waiver of prevailing wage by the DOL which could be jeopardized if the Pember is not given equal standing as owner,” Macero wrote to Sexton.

Shortly into the Labas administration as mayor of Granville in April 2019, Plante Jr. emailed the village clerk asking “who will be letting out the work, the village or the association?” indicating he did not understand fully who was responsible for the construction.

One week later, Plante Jr. emailed the village clerk again providing an ultimate clarification.

“After several discussions, it has been determined that the project would be considered public work and subject to prevailing wages,” Plante Jr. wrote.

Village of Granville attorney Michael Martin agrees with Labas, reaffirming the village’s stance that prevailing wages were applicable to the construction of the elevator based on the fact that the Pember is a public library owned by the village.

“It’s a public library,” Martin said via phone call. “They are not a Free Association Library, they are subject to FOIL.”

Martin said he had consulted with the New York Council of Nonprofits (NYCON), New York State and conducted his own research to determine that the Department of Labor made a mistake in designating the elevator project to not apply prevailing wage.

“Prevailing wage should have been applicable to that project,” Martin said. “Somebody could sue the village or the Pember for the prevailing wage that should have been paid.”

Also, Martin expressed in his more than 20 years of working with the Village of Granville, he has come to appreciate the passion on both sides of this issue, and recognizes the side representing the Pember trying to maintain and preserve the wonder and glory of the local gem.

“I think everyone (involved) has good intentions,” Martin said. “One of the jewels of the Village is the Pember Library (and Museum), and I don’t want to see anything happen to that.”

Long-time Granvillian John Freed has been intrigued in the $800,000 situation and where the expenditures went, if any alternative models or options were considered, and why the Pember feels they are placing an anonymous donor’s funding at risk.

He went the legally appropriate route through the FOIL process, placing a request to the Pember Board on Oct. 27, 2020, to which he was denied by King on Nov. 5, 2020.

Freed went to the next step sending a formal appeal letter on Nov. 9, 2020 that was received by the Pember on Nov. 10, 2020. Kevin Engel, an attorney from East Greenbush, was used as legal counsel for the Pember and denied Freed’s appeal on Dec. 3.

Engel’s letter to Freed described the Pember as “autonomous” and contradicts Martin and Labas’ claims.

“Although the Pember Library and Museum performs a valuable public service, it is nevertheless a private organization, chartered by the Board of Regents, and not a public corporation. In fact, the Pember Library and Museum Board of Trustees is required by its 1909 deeded property rights and covenants as well as its charter, to remain autonomous,” Engel wrote to Freed.

“As such, the board remains at all times relevant herein independent from the Village of Granville, or any other government entity or agency. Further, its operation and capital budgets are primarily privately funded, and its budgets are not subject to village approval or public hearings. Thusly, the board is not a governmental agency for the purpose of compelling the document disclosure pursuant New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).”

Freed, a former Pember board member, established that he had no intention of escalating any issues and that he’s not “anti-Pember,” but “pro-taxpayer.”

“If they’re not going to divulge the $800,000… then my question is why? Freed said. “Let’s just let them be what they want to be and that’s privately funded. Well, that’s the alternative.”

Pember reparations and contributions

To meet Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) code, King and former Pember treasurer and project manager for the elevator installation Tatko both said an anonymous woman, who has donated more than $1.3 million to the Pember’s endeavors and mission over the course of the last 20 years, had made a significant donation with the intent to make it handicap accessible for anyone to enjoy what the Pember Library provides.

“(It) had to be an external addition, that’s the only way to get it to work,” King said. “She (the anonymous donor) restricted that money to be ONLY for the elevator.”

“Several studies were begun to examine the best method of access to the museum at the most reasonable cost,” Tatko wrote to NYVT Media. “The concept to modify the ramp and build an interior chair lift was one concept and an elevator installation was another concept.”

The chair lift concept by Easy Lift was rejected for multiple reasons, including not accommodating a bus tour and creating issues with getting a wheelchair upstairs.

“The ramp needed extensive modifications and anchor accommodation,” Tatko wrote. “The chair lift was rejected since it resulted in a very tight space when the operating chair lift and others on foot were in the same area. The aesthetics of a chair lift inside the Pember were problematic and did not keep with the Victorian surroundings.”

Tatko explained in-person at the Pember on Dec. 23 that the donor’s wishes were broken down into three phases starting in 2014 and finished in 2019 with the completion of the elevator, realizing that the new regime taking over the Pember was inheriting a deteriorated and neglected building.

Phase one was the approximately $90,000 overhaul of physical repairs to the Pember from June 1, 2014, when the Pember’s 990 non-profit form was activated, until July of 2017. Changes included the installation of a new heating system, replacement of every single-pane window and winterization of the building, an upgraded electrical rewiring, repairing the seven-year-old moisture and leaks absorbed in the museum ceiling and many more advancements.

Phase two of the donor’s wishes was for the Pember to buy the Carriage House just south of the library.

The third and final phase was the addition of the elevator, completed with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on June 15, 2019 with former state Sen. Betty Little in attendance to present Tatko with a commendation award from the state senate for his community service.

The elevator.

King said Tatko only serves as a financial advisor to the Pember board now, he is just a volunteer who makes recommendations given his background.

Tatko added that he “has nothing to hide” in response to those who think he received a payout from the construction of the elevator with both his name and the name of his company on the insurance paperwork.

“We (Pember board) make the actual decisions,” King said. “Bob just gives us advice on those decisions.”

“They think I made a ton of money, I didn’t make a (expletive) penny… the only thing that I did was to use my status in the industry to negotiate the very best rates for the Pember,” Tatko said.”

In Tatko’s timeline he provided the name Copper Beach which Tatko said supplied private funding for the elevator construction. The remaining money came from donations and the $100,000 SAM grant approved by New York State.

Tatko and King made it clear that they don’t feel support or a physical presence from the village board, and that they are reliant on themselves. Tatko said that out of 81 Pember meetings, the village board’s representative to the Pember, Gordie Smith, attended just three.

Both King and Tatko said that if the village were really interested in what was going on, they would have attended the public meetings.

“There’s supposed to be a liaison at meetings,” King said. “You (the village board) had the opportunity and the obligation as far as I’m concerned to be there.”

Tatko said he is proud of his and King’s ability to turn the financial disaster they walked into and transformed it to a strong base where the Pember can continue to enhance young minds in different avenues.

According to a numbers sheet Tatko provided, the Pember board under former chair Pat Wesner had a balance of $343,580 in 2014 that was steadily decreasing from 2011. King’s board has seen a balance growth from $421,598 in 2015 to $1,053,477 in 2019.

The net income in 2014 was -$14,492 and an astounding $261,363 in 2019.

“I don’t need the recognition,” Tatko said.

After asking all the players how a resolution could be made, both sides said they’d be willing to hash everything out and let their voices be heard.

“I have begged to do that,” King said.

There is no love lost between Tatko and Labas, and King is afraid she and the Pember are caught in the middle.

“I think there is a huge difference in opinions in how things should be done,” Labas said. “He (Tatko) keeps insinuating that some nefarious things are going on in the village.”

“There’s no room for pot calling kettle black here,” King said. “My passion is the Pember… I love the place. It shouldn’t be a big controversial thing in a small town.”