June 22, 2006

Library chief draws cops' ire

Library Director Michele Reutty is under fire for refusing to give police library circulation records without a subpoena.

Reutty says she was only doing her job and maintaining the privacy of library patrons. But the mayor called it "a blatant disregard for the Police Department," which needed her help to identify a man who allegedly threatened a child.

Reutty, the director for 17 years, now faces possible discipline by the library board. Members of the Borough Council have suggested she receive punishment ranging from a letter of reprimand in her personnel file to a 30-day unpaid suspension. But the Library Board of Trustees said it would reserve judgment until a closed-door hearing next month.

Police received a report May 10 that a 12-year-old borough girl was allegedly sexually threatened by a man outside the municipal building. The library is on the second floor. The girl told her parents, who called police.

The suspect, who has been identified as a 23-year-old Hackensack man, did not molest the girl, said borough Police Chief Michael Colaneri. The investigation is ongoing through the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office, Colaneri said.

The girl told police the man was carrying a library book with a certain title. The next day, borough police detectives asked Reutty to tell them who took out that book.

Reutty said she refused to give the information to police without a subpoena -- in accordance with New Jersey state statutes governing access of private information from libraries, she said.

Police came back with a subpoena later that day. Reutty conducted the search and told police she could not find a book with that title.

So, police asked her to show them all the records of everyone who took out or renewed a book for the previous 10 days. Reutty asked for another subpoena because those records are computerized and not kept at the library.

On May 12, Reutty said, she complied with the second subpoena -- which required a special computer program by the Bergen County Cooperative Library System. Police found the information right away, which helped them to identify the suspect, according to Colaneri.

But borough officials say Reutty intentionally stonewalled the police investigation by putting the library first. They also charged that she did not follow procedure by contacting the borough's attorney when she received the subpoena. Instead, she called a lawyer from the state library association.

The whole episode is "shocking," Reutty said Wednesday. "I followed the law. And because I followed the law, at the end of the day, the policemen's case is going to hold strong. Nobody is going to sue the library and nobody is going to sue the municipality of Hasbrouck Heights because information was given out illegally."

On Tuesday, about 20 librarians from around the state attended a joint meeting of the Borough Council and the library Board of Trustees in a show of support for Reutty.

The group included the executive director of the New Jersey Library Association, who told borough officials that the organization would revise its rules governing subpoenas.

"I will ask the Attorney General's Office and the [state] Police Association to sit down with us and look at those regulations," said NJLA head Patricia Tumulty.

Reutty is the first vice president/president-elect of the librarians' organization.

Several residents spoke in Reutty's defense, saying she must have been confused about the borough's rules.

But Reutty dismissed that interpretation. "The main issue here is privacy of information, and all of this could have been handled by education," she said.

Reutty did the right thing, said Arthur Miller, her lawyer. "At no time did Michele Reutty say to any police officer or anybody else that she would not give the information if it was properly requested," Miller told the council. "She said you've got to get proper court authorization."

Borough labor lawyer Ellen Horn, who also represented the library trustees, said Reutty was "more interested in protecting" her library than helping the police.

"It was an absolute misjudgment of the seriousness of the matter," Horn said at Tuesday's meeting.

Reutty said the issue has grown to encompass a larger issue.

"I think it would have been so easy for me to just resign when all of this started happening," she said. "But it's not just me anymore. This is so that other librarians, when faced with a subpoena, will do the right thing."

E-mail: firschein@northjersey.com


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