Rochelle Hartman, 59, told Illinois Times the following day that she was surprised and bewildered when Langfelder summoned her to City Hall and told her city officials wanted to use the beginning of a new fiscal year to "go in a different direction."
"I asked him, 'Are you firing me?'" Hartman said. "He said, 'Well, things haven't worked out like we thought they would.'" Hartman said she asked for more specifics, but the mayor didn't provide any. She said Langfelder offered her the option to resign, but she declined.
Hartman, whose hiring for the $87,000-a-year job was approved by the Springfield City Council in August 2019, said no one from City Hall ever evaluated her performance.
She said she never received any feedback or direction on her leadership of a public library and wing of city government with 40 staff members and an annual budget of about $5 million. "Communication from City Hall has been thin," she said. Langfelder initially declined comment, but on Jan. 22, a day after Illinois Times reported the firing, he issued a written statement.
"It was becoming evident that more quality and qualified staff were leaving the library," the statement said. "This, along with previously documented employee issues, required change before we lost other employees. Ms. Hartman did not have plans to stay long-term, which she openly shared and was looking to move elsewhere."
Langfelder's spokeswoman, Julia Frevert, said the "previously documented employee issues" involved "employee and union concerns" communicated to the city's human resources department "due to management issues that did involve Hartman."
Asked to respond to Langfelder and Frevert's statements, Hartman said she remained committed at the time of her firing to working at least another six or seven years and completing her career as director of Lincoln Library.
She said long-standing challenges facing the library, combined with "a lot of deeply challenging personnel issues that I handled to the best of my ability" during the COVID-19 pandemic, prompted her to wonder whether she was "the best person to lead the library and support the staff."
As a result, Hartman said she applied in fall 2021 for two different library leadership positions in Iowa – becoming a finalist for one job there – and one position in Minnesota. None of those job opportunities worked out, she said.
Hartman said she then recommitted herself to leading Lincoln Library through retirement, though she said she did not notify the mayor of her decision to stay for the long term.
Regarding the employee issues, she said she sought but received no direction or coaching from her boss, Langfelder, "so I just proceeded."
Hartman said the mayor's apparent dissatisfaction with how she handled employee issues could have been resolved if she reported to a board that had more understanding of day-to-day issues facing the library. Gene Mitchell, a staff representative for Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents Lincoln Library workers, said he didn't know details of the employee issue to which the mayor and Frevert referred.
"We remain committed to working with whoever represents the city of Springfield," Mitchell said. "We work with every director in the city and the mayor." Hartman was born in the Ford County community of Paxton, grew up in Bloomington-Normal and earned a bachelor's degree in anthropology from Illinois State University and a master's in library and information sciences from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
She worked 13 years as adult services manager for the La Crosse library before landing the job in Springfield. She also previously worked as a librarian at the Bloomington Public Library.
Hartman replaced William O'Hearn, who left in March 2019 after just two years as director to become director of the public library system in Eugene, Oregon. Hartman said the Springfield job appealed to her because she was missing central Illinois, where longtime friends and relatives lived, and because of the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.
"I have always loved Abe Lincoln," she said. The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard for Lincoln Library – like many public libraries across the state and nation – as the library dealt with periodic closures and a switch to virtual programs to prevent disease transmission, she said. "It's been challenging and frustrating," she said.
Hartman said she struggled to adjust to the unusual model under which Lincoln Library operates – as a city government department rather than as a separate governmental unit that has its own decision-making board of directors and designated property tax revenues.
The library's downtown location at 326 S. Seventh St., and its funding level in a city of 114,400 people, have also been a challenge, she said.
"Lincoln Library is one of the most understaffed and underfunded libraries for its size in the state," Hartman said.
Public libraries in many midsize communities in central Illinois, including Peoria and Champaign, operate branch libraries. Lincoln Library used to but doesn't any longer.
Its west-side branch at 1251 W. Washington St. and its southeast branch at 2500 South Grand Ave. East closed in 2010. The north branch at 719 North Grand Ave. East, closed in 2005.
The library's website says "financial considerations and the conditions of the buildings" led to the branch closures.
The downtown library's location – a place where homeless people congregate and often sleep outside, and not close to residential neighborhoods – was a "big liability" in promoting more use of the library's services, Hartman said.
She said she had planned to continue working with local nonprofits and community leaders on long-term strategies for addressing homelessness. And since it's unlikely the library will be moved to another building, she said she had hoped to bring more library programs and services to city neighborhoods.
"There's so much more we could be doing," she said. Hartman, who is divorced and lives with her two adult children, said she doesn't know what she will do next. She said she enjoyed working with other city department directors, and she called the library's staff "the gem of that place. They are the library's best asset."
Langfelder removed another city department head, former planning and economic development director Val Yazell, in March 2021.
Yazell, who had been director three years, told The State Journal-Register at the time that the mayor said he wanted to go in "a different direction." Yazell told the SJ-R there had been "no conversation, no discussion" about the mayor's dissatisfaction with her job performance before the firing. Yazell's position hasn't been filled.
Ward 8 Ald. Erin Conley said Hartman's firing took her "completely by surprise." Conley said she has received "a lot of positive feedback from constituents" about the library's efforts to continue programs and services during the pandemic. Referring to Hartman's statements about her firing, Conley said she would "like to know the 'new direction' for the library.
"I am completely shocked," Conley said. "I've gotten no negative feedback from anyone about the library director." She said she enjoyed working with Hartman.
"The library is a really important resource in this city," Conley said, adding that it is "unfortunate" Langfelder has fired two female department heads since Conley was elected to the city council in 2019.
"I genuinely find it interesting that women are the ones fired," she said. Conley said she wasn't privy to the reasons behind Yazell's termination. The alderman said she is concerned the city is approaching one year without a director over a department through which millions of federal dollars flow annually.
"Long-term planning and economic development is a critical function of our city," Conley said. Langfelder's statement said: "I do not believe personnel matters should be played out publicly. And as city council members already know, they can contact me anytime with questions. ... I, along with HR, have been meeting with the remaining staff one-on-one. Once these meetings are complete, I will make the determination for next steps at Lincoln Library which will be shared with the library staff, city council and the public."
Dean Olsen, a senior staff writer with Illinois Times, can be reached at email@example.com or 217-679-7810.