Orleans Parish voters recently placed their trust in the stewardship of the New Orleans Public Library by approving a new property tax to essentially double the library’s budget.
Now, that trust is in jeopardy amid revelations that the library’s foundation has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for purposes far beyond the library’s mission — activities that also benefited the foundation’s leadership.
While trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and his friend Ronald Markham were serving as two of five members of the library foundation board, the foundation gave $660,000 in 2012 and $197,000 in 2013 to the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, or NOJO, where Mayfield and Ronald are both connected. Mayfield founded NOJO, and in 2012, the orchestra organization reported paying two salaries: $148,050 to Mayfield and $100,000 to Markham. The library foundation money apparently helped fund the Jazz Market, a new headquarters for NOJO.
Markham has promoted the Jazz Market as a way to advance interest in the library. But library officials have long complained about the library’s lack of funds to buy new items for its collection and upgrade its technology. Given that need, the foundation shouldn’t be spending money on a music venue or jazz orchestra, which can raise money through other sources. Mayfield and Markham’s involvement in steering library foundation money to NOJO while helping to lead the library foundation was a blatant conflict of interest.
The current chairman of the library’s governing board, Bernard Charbonnet, said he didn’t know about the library foundation’s payments to NOJO. Library director Charles Brown said he didn’t know about the salaries that Mayfield and Markham were receiving from NOJO until a reporter told him. The money in question was privately raised, and not tax dollars. Even so, library officials have an obligation to monitor how any funds are raised and spent in the library’s name. Their lack of vigilance regarding the foundation’s finances doesn’t give voters much confidence that the library itself is following good business practices.
The library foundation should ask NOJO to repay grants the foundation made to the orchestra. The foundation also should adopt a policy that strictly limits the spending of foundation money to uses that are more in keeping with the library’s core mission. The foundation also should secure an outside audit of its spending to help assure the public that other financial abuses are not occurring.
The residents who put their faith in the library deserve nothing less.