Credit: HCLS Facebook page

When a tipster asked Howard County officials to investigate an invitation-only sorority event at the library system’s Central Branch last fall, the county auditor sprung into action. The auditor’s staff staked out the evening function and later sought to interview library officials about their role.

But library staff, including President and CEO Tonya Aikens, would not fully participate in the inquiry and steered auditor questions to its lawyer. It says that as a state agency it is not subject to oversight by the county auditor, and library staff have denied any wrongdoing.

This week, Howard County auditor Craig N. Glendenning released a report saying that the office could not complete its inquiry into whether public funds were misused in holding the event because of that lack of cooperation.

But the report contained descriptions about Black women and their clothing entering the library for an Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority reception that some found insensitive. And it exacerbated tensions between some council members about whether the inquiry was necessary, and whether the sorority and the library president were inappropriately singled out or targeted.

Howard County Councilmember Opel Jones said the actions taken by Glendenning and his staff were overly aggressive and “appalling.”

“I’ve read the report twice, and I do not understand why they would have gone to such lengths,” Jones said. “There’s no cost to the library … So where’s the misuse of funds?”

But Council member David Yungmann, the lone Republican on the County Council, said the report was troubling and Glendening should have been allowed complete his investigation.

“How could you not be disturbed by the lack of transparency and cooperation from what could be a fairly simple investigation?” Yungmann said. “The auditor has the right to investigate this.”

Three days after the report’s release, the Howard County Library Board of Trustees said on Friday that it would conduct its own investigation into the event.

“The Howard County Library Board of Trustees and President and CEO take their responsibility to taxpayers and funders seriously,” the library system said in a statement. “The library system is governed by their Board of Trustees, and it is their responsibility to perform their statutory duties. We look forward to providing a response when the investigation is complete.”

In Howard County, the auditor is hired by and reports to the County Council, and operates to “serve as a ‘watch dog’ over the affairs of the Executive Branch, ensuring public funds are spent in accordance with budgets adopted by the County Council and other provisions of the County Charter and County Code,” according to the office’s web site. The office maintains a system for anonymous reporting of “waste, fraud and abuse.” Glendenning said his office received an anonymous tip in early October 2022 that the Central Library branch was hosting a private event for a chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) Sorority.

The event was scheduled a day before the chapter’s 50th Anniversary party at Martin’s West in Baltimore.

When questioned, the library told Glendenning that it frequently hosts events free of charge and the sorority would pay for setup, security and other expenses.

The library reiterated this week to Baltimore Fishbowl that the system does not charge outside groups for use of library space.

The library maintained that the sorority function was a public event followed by a reception. However, Glendenning’s staff found promotional materials online that said the event was “by invitation only.”

A copy of an invitation to an event at the Howard County Library System Central Branch contained in an auditor’s report.

The auditor found that the Central Library did host the event on Oct. 7, closing at 2 p.m., four hours early in preparation. The office’s report said it sought answers to whether staff were paid even though the library closed early, and who secured the library at the end of the event.

Auditor’s staff also staked out the event, and offered descriptions of what they found in the report. The report contained multiple references to “African-American women in white dresses” who attended. Jones found the references inappropriate and racially insensitive.

“I’m the only African American member of the County Council. And I’ve been dealing with issues like this,” Jones said.

AKA is a traditionally Black sorority but membership is open to all college women. It is tradition of sorority members to wear white for certain occasions.

Aikens, who is Black, has been the library system’s president and CEO since 2018 after leading the library system in Riverside, Calif. The county library system has earned a “five-star” designation, ranking it among the country’s top public libraries. The original complaint alleged that Aikens is a member of AKA; the library system on Friday said Aikens is not a member of any sorority.

Jones questioned the tactics employed by the auditor’s office during its review. Jones said Glendening and his staff interviewed library employees at the central branch in January, setting up what amounted to an “interrogation room.”

Jones also said he also found it odd that Glendenning asked him – and each member of the Council – to sign a letter endorsing the investigation without providing any background information about the probe.

When Glendenning asked for more interviews with the library’s staff, including Aikens, after the event, the library’s lawyers said the audit department had no jurisdiction over the library system.

Glendening declined to comment further this week, saying the report speaks for itself.

“After reading the report, I’m trying to find out where the misuse of funds is,” Jones said. “I belong to an organization … Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated. I happened to be the former president of the local chapter. And we’ve had meetings at the library free of charge.”

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Tim Swift

Tim Swift is a local freelance writer and the former features editor for the Baltimore Sun.

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  1. Hmmmmm……”anonymous tip” sounds like someone didn’t like African Americans gathering for a social event. We’ve seen Driving While Black, BBQing While Black, Birdwatching While Black, and countless others….now this. The invitation reads “A Celebration of Sisterhood and Service.” I hope members of the AKA continue to serve a community where some members are not appreciative or worthy of their attention.

    1. Bullocks. Stop playing the race card every time a black person gets questioned. And stop with the capitalization of ‘black’. If you don’t do it with ‘white’ or ‘brown’ or ‘yellow’, then don’t do it for ‘black’. It’s stupid and insulting. And the auditor has not just the right to question and follow up on a tip, he has the responsibility to do so. And just how is a county library system a ‘state agency’? That makes no sense. Seems like there is a lot of covering up going on and more questions need to be asked, not fewer.

    2. It is interesting that the auditor chose to emphasize the race of the women attending. I find it hard to believe he would have felt it necessary to note “white women in white dresses” if they had been white. He introduced race into it.

    3. J. Thomas I know it will take some actual work on your part but you should read the report and all the other audit reports published by this auditor. He never before names the 3rd parties or the race or gender of the people involved. Why would he decide to change that format for this report? How is race or gender relevant to the “investigation?” It seems like he auditor made this about race, not the other way around.

    1. Perhaps because the auditor exceeded his authority. The HCLS has issued a comprehensive report in which it is made clear that the auditor is the one who refused to cooperate. He behaved unprofessionally.

  2. The library has never been closed for a private party before. Tonya Aikens used her position as CEO of the library to host a private party for her sorority.

    1. Where did you get the idea that the library has never been closed for a private event before? Have you resaerched every event ever held at Howard County libraries? I know for a fact that there have been private events at the Glnwood library and it’s part of the HoCo library system.

  3. The description of the sorority was besides the point and basic irrelevant, it has since been removed from the report. They are the least important part of this entire investigation. The question is, was the library shut down or not in an unallowable way and (now people are wondering) how often. The spin on this to distract from the abuse of people and resources to cover someone’s tracks is ridiculous and irresponsible. Grow up.

  4. It is a taxpayer issue. Something tax and spend folks resent.
    Answer the questions Ms Aikens on if this event was not unilaterally made and let us move on from the new Jane Crow where if we don’t like it we slam the race card at it.

  5. This type of scrutiny is definitely BELIEVABLE in this current climate. Sounds like a patron was angry about the early closure, an employee had an issue, or someone didn’t get invited. All of this effort went into this situation to discredit an organization that continuously provide VOLUNTEER services to the community. Some people need to get a life. Keep serving and keep striving AKAs!

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