There were a lot of tears at Wednesday’s Soldotna City Council meeting.
For more than an hour, residents of Soldotna, Kenai and Nikiski took turns castigating the city manager and council for the surprise termination of Soldotna Public Library director Terri Burdick.
Several common themes wove through the public testimony that came from friends, family, former library employees and patrons as they laughed over her exuberant costuming during story time, unwavering support of the library as a hub of the community and their shock and disappointment with the way city manager Mark Dixson fired her.
Several, including Burdick, questioned why the 28-year city employee was fired without being given a reason.
“I’ve been on the library board for quite awhile,” said Marge Hays, of Soldotna. “I realize that people that know anything about this can’t say anything, so we’re sort of in the dark. Legally, it may be the right thing to do, but we do want to stand up for a lovely woman who has done an awfully good job as the library director.”
Since Burdick’s dismissal Monday she said she has struggled with embarrassment and despair.
“You can’t fight against that, but I feel sad. I do have so many people in the community that have felt that I’ve done a wonderful job for the library and that kind of stuff and to have somebody come in and treat me like this is kind of a low blow,” she said. “I haven’t even left my house because ... when people hear this from the newspaper or the radio they’re going to go, ‘Oh, sour apples.’ But, I haven’t done anything criminal to get fired.”
Dave Carey, President of the Friends of the Soldotna Library, said he was surprised and sad for the community when he heard of Burdick’s dismissal.
“I was concerned that Terri (wasn’t) being treated fairly and justly and that is still my concern,” he said.
Carey, like several other people in the audience, spoke of children in his family visiting the library because Burdick made them feel welcome.
“The world is not fair, but I want her treated fairly,” Carey said.
Lingering questions about the reasons for Burdick’s dismissal hung heavily on several people’s minds as the addressed the council; Burdick said the uncertainty of not knowing why she was fired has made coping with the situation more difficult. She, and several people who spoke in her defense, speculated that her lack of a library degree could have prompted the dismissal.
“I’ve said these words before, they’re kind of strong but, to me, it feels like the heart and soul of the library has been ripped out, it will never be the same again,” said Jeanette Pedginski. “Library directors are available out there with degrees, you can’t get a library degree in Alaska when you’re living here. You have to do it by correspondence — people don’t look well on correspondence degrees — or you have to leave the state. Not all of us have that opportunity, even if we had the desire, to leave the state to get a master’s degree in library science.”
Pedginski said she had worked for Burdick for two years and while the two had their differences, they had worked through them.
“That’s the problem that I have with this situation right now is, when you have a problem with somebody you work with ... even if it’s legal to fire for no cause, it’s morally wrong,” Pedginski said.
Others, like Rosie Reeder, said the city manager’s short time with the community did not compare to Burdick’s years of service.
“I’m upset that someone who has served as city manager for such a short time has taken it upon himself to let someone go that has given us 30 years of service,” Reeder said. “There are ways that things like this should be handled and I don’t think this was handled appropriately. I’m sure it was legal, in fact, I’m positive it was probably legal, but I don’t think it’s right.”
Dixson, who spoke after most of the public testimony, said he would not talk about the specifics of Burdick’s termination, but had not been aware that she did not have a degree.
“I struggled with it, it wasn’t made in a vacuum, it was made with the complete thought that I was going to see all of you people here this evening and I expected this,” Dixson said of his decision to fire the librarian.
Dixson said he was not, however, at peace with the process he was required to follow once he decided to terminate Burdick, a process several in the community characterized as disrespectful.
“It was the most horrifying experience that I have ever done in my life,” Dixson said.
Still, Dixson said he stood by his decision to fire the librarian.
“If you want to hate me for that, that’s fine,” he told the crowd. “I’m not paid to be popular, I’m paid to make decisions for the benefit of the city, its residents and its employees and I apologize that I’ve caused you such anguish.”
After the meeting Dixson said he contacted Carey and asked if the Friends of the Soldotna Library was willing to spearhead an effort to praise Burdick for her years of service.
Dixson said he was also happy with how respectful the community had been, despite their criticism of his decision.
“I’ve been in meetings before where people haven’t been respectful,” he said. “As county attorney back east, on several boards making decisions and giving unpopular advice, I’m used to it. I’ve been called every name in the book in public. These people, I thought, were very nice in their comments. I still say it’s a great community and it’s great that people come out and express their concerns and do it in a respectful and appropriate way.”
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org