Ugly battle has librarians in Oak Brook turning to Teamsters

  • A dome and skylight brighten the center of the Oak Brook Public Library.

    A dome and skylight brighten the center of the Oak Brook Public Library. Marcelle Bright/

  • Statues of children with Ronald McDonald stand at the entrance to the Oak Brook Public Library.

    Statues of children with Ronald McDonald stand at the entrance to the Oak Brook Public Library. Marcelle Bright/

  • Connie Xinos

    Connie Xinos

  • Oak Brook Public Library

    Oak Brook Public Library

Published: 10/1/2009 12:02 AM

Telling her mother that she wanted to come to the aid of a library under attack, 11-year-old Sydney Sabbagha stood at the podium before the Oak Brook village board.

"I used to go to the library knowing there were people there to help me find a book. Now there is no one to help me," Sydney said solemnly. "It will never be the same without the people you fired."

Sydney nestled back into her seat, but that didn't stop 69-year-old criminal attorney Constantine "Connie" Xinos from boldly putting her in her place.

"Those who come up here with tears in their eyes talking about the library, put your money where your mouth is," Xinos shot back. He told Sydney and others who spoke against the layoffs of the three full-time staffers (including the head librarian and children's librarian) and two part-timers to stop "whining" and raise the money themselves.

"I don't care that you guys miss the librarian, and she was nice, and she helped you find books," Xinos told them.

"Don't cry crocodile tears about people who are making $100,000 a year wiping tables and putting the books back on the shelves," Xinos smirked, apparently referencing the fired head librarian, who has advanced degrees and made $98,676 a year. He said Oak Brook had to "stop indulging people in their hobbies" and "their little, personal, private wants."

Sydney was upset and "her little friend was in tears" after Xinos spoke at the meeting last week, says mom Hope Sabbagha.

"I wanted that kid to lose sleep that night," a grinning Xinos says Wednesday, as he invites me for a nearly two-hour interview in his Mercedes-Benz in the gated Oak Brook community where he lives. "This is the real world and the lesson, you folks who brought your kids here, is if you want something, pay for it."

Xinos, who unsuccessfully sued to stop the building of the new library, which opened in 2002, sits on one side of the issue. He lost his election bid to be a village board member, but has been president of his home association since 1983 and worked to elect board members who agree with him about the library.

On the other side sits Barbara Benezra, the longtime president of the Friends of the Oak Brook Public Library, who considers the library "my third child."

"This is the heart of the village," Benezra says as she tours the library and surrounding gardens under a sign sporting a Cicero quotation reading, "If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need."

"We don't have a grocery store," Benezra says. "We have this."

While Benezra acknowledges the need for some budget cuts at the library, given the recession, she says, "There's always been a faction of this town that's been anti-library."

The librarians, who stereotypically remain hushed for this story, obviously feel a bit threatened. They have turned to the Teamsters for some labor help.

Teamster librarians in Oak Brook? Mercy.

"We get good contracts for all kinds of professionals," says Brian Rainville, executive director of Teamsters Joint Council 25, which oversees 100,000 Chicago-area Teamsters, from pharmacists to zoo keepers.

"They have given us petitions," Village Manager David Niemeyer says of the Teamsters. "Assuming they do become certified, we'll have to negotiate with them."

Other village employees are unionized and the village works out contracts with them.

"Everybody thinks Oak Brook is rich and has all kinds of resources, but we don't," Niemeyer says. "Oak Brook has very low taxes and that's a point of pride in this town."

Begun as a volunteer effort in 1961 with donated books, the library occupied a small space in village hall until it moved into an old school two years later. It stayed there until the village built the new library.

The library is a village department funded by the general fund, same as the police, fire department and public works. It has no taxing power. Its budget comes from the village, and much of that money comes from sales tax, as there is no property tax. And sales at the mall and other businesses are down.

"We're probably going through what a lot of towns are going through," Niemeyer says of the budget cuts. "None of these things are easy."

It's not complicated for Xinos.

"You may like the library, but when you call 9-1-1, you want a policeman or a fireman before someone to tell you where the books are in the library," says the man who has talked of privatizing, outsourcing or even closing the library.

"I understand that my philosophy is conservative," Xinos says, adding that government just needs to catch bad guys, put out fires, fix the streets and make sure buildings are sturdy.

He campaigned, successfully, against a plan to bring subsidized housing for seniors into town by declaring, "I don't want to live next to poor people. I don't want poor people in my town."

A poor kid who grew up in Berwyn and worked in his dad's cafeteria in Chicago, Xinos went to law school and served in the Marines. Xinos says he speaks for Oak Brook's view of the Teamsters when he says, "Nobody here likes those kind of people."

Xinos, who says he never had children in part because he wasn't sure he'd be able to support them, sprinkles the F-word throughout his conversations. He dismisses a recent library event involving dogs with a blunt three-word rant in which he bookends swear words around the word "that."

That attitude doesn't represent the silent majority in Oak Brook, who support the library, Benezra says.

"There's been no discussion on the village board about closing the library," Niemeyer notes. "There is great pride in our library. We have an outstanding library."

What the library will look like in the 2010 budget depends on Xinos, Benezra, Teamsters, librarians, the village board and the people of Oak Brook.