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Firing at library creates debate

Employees in Palm Harbor say the woman was treated unfairly. But her supervisor says their anger is triggered by his management style.

By EDIE GROSS

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 15, 2000


PALM HARBOR -- By most accounts, no more than a swallow of coffee remained in Carol Cannella's cup when Lou Paolilli entered the Palm Harbor Library break room one morning and told her to report to work in the children's section.

It was 8:45 a.m., 15 minutes before the 76-year-old library employee was scheduled to begin work and more than an hour before the library's doors would open at 10 a.m.

Plenty of time, Cannella thought, to finish her coffee before heading to her station.

Paolilli, the library director, thought differently.

When Cannella told him that she was almost done with her drink and would go to work when she finished, Paolilli fired the 10-year employee on the spot, according to many library employees and volunteers who witnessed the Dec. 2 incident. Then he had her escorted off the property by sheriff's deputies,

Cannella went home and hired an attorney.

"I never had a word with this man," she said. "I don't know what hit him."

Paolilli would not discuss what happened that morning, except to say that his version is "substantially different" from the stories told by Cannella and witnesses.

"If it goes into litigation, I really don't want to have this thing tried in the paper," he said.

Since Cannella's firing, five employees -- 25 percent of the library's paid work force -- have resigned in protest. A chunk of the library's volunteer force has stayed away too.

On Wednesday night, an angry crowd of library employees, volunteers and a few patrons confronted the board that oversees the library's operations, demanding to know why Cannella was fired and what would be done to improve relations between Paolilli and those who work for him.

"Do we know why Carol was fired and the police had to be called to take away a woman who never had a parking ticket in her life, who never hurt anyone, who worked overtime, who spent her salary on her job?" asked Jeanne Brooks, a former library employee. "As a taxpayer, I don't think this is right. I do need an answer."

Members of the Palm Harbor Community Services Agency board, who hired Paolilli in November 1998, refused to discuss Cannella's firing. Instead, they hired a consultant for $2,000 to meet with Paolilli and other supervisors in the library and suggest ways to improve communication and morale there.

"I'm not much for consultants, but after hearing everything I'm hearing tonight, I'm all for it," said board member Dr. Ken Peluso. "I think it's essential that action be taken, and this is the most prudent way to do it."

Cannella, who did not attend the meeting, said she had never had a run-in with Paolilli. Her employee evaluations list her as excellent and above average in every category. She earned especially high marks for punctuality.

But on the morning of Dec. 2, Cannella was forced to leave the library so quickly that she could not even gather her grandchildren's pictures from her desk.

According to a sheriff's report, Paolilli told deputies summoned to the library that Cannella was an ex-employee who was trespassing. She was given a trespass warning and told if she returned to the library, she risked being arrested. A co-worker brought Cannella's things to her the next day.

The Community Services Agency board decided Dec. 8 that Cannella should not be banned from the building and was welcome as a patron. Cannella said she has not returned to the library since the incident and has no plans to go back to work there.

"I would never work there with him because I would never be able to show any respect for this man," she said. "He humiliated me."

A dozen employees sent a letter to the Community Services Agency criticizing the way Cannella's firing was handled. They said morale in the library has never been lower.

Some of the negative reaction from employees may be attributed to their discomfort with change, said Paolilli, a retired air traffic controller who managed three branches of the Orange County Library System before coming to Palm Harbor.

During the past six months, he has rearranged key sections of the library and made plans to knock out a few walls in some spots and add a few in others. And his management style is different from past library directors, he said.

"Whenever the directorship changes, it's going to be hard because everyone has their own style. Some people like it, and some people don't," Paolilli said. "The whole thing revolves around change and how people react to change. I think I would be considered a strong leader. Some people are comfortable working for strong leaders, and some people are uncomfortable."

The Library Advisory Council, a volunteer group that meets monthly with the director, commended Paolilli in his annual evaluation for improving the building, obtaining grants, increasing Internet services and helping get the new East Lake Community Library off the ground.

But the evaluation, released Wednesday, also criticized him for unequal treatment of staff, "management by intimidation," and "irrational and inappropriate behavior in the recent termination of a longtime, loyal employee."

The advisory council recommended Paolilli not receive a raise until his performance could be re-evaluated in a few months. The Community Services Agency agreed.

"Everybody needs to improve," Paolilli said of his evaluation.

Lauren Stokes served on the committee that interviewed Paolilli and recommended that he be hired in 1998 to replace outgoing director John Szabo. She said Paolilli assured her during his two interviews that he would counsel employees before firing them.

"Why wasn't Carol given the benefit of counsel and given the opportunity to correct her behavior, if that's the problem, as you're proposing to correct Lou's behavior?" Stokes asked agency board members. Stokes, who worked at the library for 10 years, resigned in August after what she said was verbal abuse from Paolilli.

Several library supporters said they wanted assurances that what happened to Cannella would not happen to other longtime employees.

"You should back your director, but where are you backing the rest of your employees?" Shirley Fay, a library volunteer and former Community Services Agency board member, asked the board Wednesday. "They don't feel they have any appeal, no matter what happens. They feel you don't even want to hear from them. I think you all better think a little about how many people you have under you, women who've worked for years and don't feel protected by you."

Paolilli said he was not bothered by the outpouring of anger at Wednesday's meeting. He expects relations with his employees to improve as they adapt to his style.

"The best thing for people to do is vent," he said. "I'm very big on First Amendment stuff and people saying what's on their mind. If they'll say it to you, you can fix it."

Fixing things with Cannella -- who never got to finish that last bit of coffee -- may be a lot harder.

"In all my life, I've never encountered anything like this," she said. "I pride myself on reaching my age and never having a parking ticket. And now I've got this on my record. It's so demoralizing."

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