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City Council Library Takeover Fails

At their September 18th meeting, in the face of public outcry, Fullerton City Council unanimously voted down a proposal to take over the Library Board of Trustees.

The proposal to replace the Library Trustees with Council Members came in the context of a broader discussion of reorganization of city commissions and boards. Additionally, the agenda item aimed to bring Fullerton’s library codes in compliance with state law.

However, the specific idea to replace the Library Board of trustees with Council Members was first introduced on May 1 by Council Member Jennifer Fitzgerald.

“I do want to bring the library board code sections up to date,” she said at that meeting, “I want to add that we substitute a new organizational structure for the library board that calls for the appointment of the city council members to serve as the trustees to the library board and to form a library advisory commission.”

Before public comment, Mayor Chaffee (sensing that he was facing a roomful of opposition) made a motion that staff bring back a new resolution deleting the part that makes council serve as library trustees.

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For the next two hours, members of the public spoke passionately in favor keeping the Library Board of Trustees, and in defense of the library itself as an important community resource and safeguard of democracy.

Manuel Bass said, “The Board of Trustees is, to me, the best safeguard of what a library is about…I think eliminating an independent board of trustees would do irreparable harm to our library system…If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Diane Vena said, “The library board of trustees needs to be separate and independent in order to best fulfill it’s sole purpose and responsibility—to manage and do what is best for the library and its patrons.”

Fern Richardson stood at the podium with her young son and got emotional in her statements: “next to public schools, independent public libraries are one of the most important institutions in a democracy. These kinds of institutions need to be shielded from the temptations and pressures of city council members.”

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Members of the public stand in solidarity to show their support for the Library Trustees. Photo Damion Lloyd.

Another woman named Sylvia also brought two of her children to the podium and said: “This does not feel like democracy for me, especially when we’ve already had a dedicated library board that’s done so well…let’s keep our leadership diverse and broad. Let’s not consolidate decision-making in the hands of the few.”

Glenn Georgieff, a former library Trustee, said “Changing the structure of the board of trustees I think would diminish the opportunities of other residents in Fullerton of participating in the governance of Fullerton.”

Elizabeth Oates, who serves on Library Foundation Board, asked that the city council postpone any decision and create discussion and input between the city council and the Library Board of Trustees, the Library Foundation, and the Friends of the Library.

Babette Carlson pointed out that at a recent city council meeting, council member Fitzgerald questioned whether our city should be in the business of running libraries, and this statement was “what fueled the fire for everyone’s passion tonight.”

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Fern Richardson stands with her son in support of the Library Trustees. Photo Damion Lloyd.

“I am encouraged to see that we have so much library support in our community,” said Carlson, “I think it’s important that we take the time to reflect on why our city, known as the education community, should protect its responsibility for running our own city library.”

Sean Paden, President of the Library Board of Trustees, said that the proposed change had no justification.

“The obligation of a library trustee is solely to look at what’s in the best interest of the library,” said Paden, adding that if City Council took over the Library Trustees, they would not be able to fulfill this mission, as they have other concerns.

Ryan Cantor, a Library Trustee, said that the fact that neither the Library Trustees nor the Library Foundation were consulted on this matter was “personally offensive.”

“This is not the standard of transparency and honesty that we value in this town. We can do better, and we will do better,” said Cantor, who suggested a special joint meeting of the Trustees and the Council to further discuss the matter.

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“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said Manuel Bass regarding the Library Trustees. Photo Damion Llyod.

Library Trustee Ellen Ballard said, “We like you guys a lot, but we don’t want you running the library.”

After public comment, members of City Council weighed in on the item.

Council Member Whitaker acknowledged that “We’ve created a lot of ill will that could easily have been avoided.”

Council Member Silva said, “I would like to meet the the stakeholders (Library Trustees, Foundation, and Friends of the Library) and see what their input is.”

Mayor Chaffee, who made the motion to eliminate the proposed takeover of the Trustees, said, “I do not like the idea of the council serving as the Board because then we are reporting to ourselves. If we are one and the same, there’s no check and balance.”

Chaffee added that, as it’s currently configured, The Library Board of Trustees is not independent, as each member is appointed by Council. He suggested having Foundation members or the Friends of the Library appoint Trustees, to give them more independence from Council.

Mayor Pro-Tem Sebourn said, “I would love to have a joint meeting with the board of trustees to see how we can work together more proactively to make the library a better place for this community.”

“I support having an ordinance that is up to date with state law,” said Sebourn, “I do not support having the council take over the Library Board of Trustees. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Council Member Fitzgerald, who first introduced the idea, said very little. She did not explain her justification for the proposed takeover, and simply directed staff to meet with Trustees, Foundation, and Friends to go over the changes that are being suggested to the code, and the reason for them.

Ultimately, all council members, including Fitzgerald, voted for Chaffee’s motion to bring back the item, minus the proposed council takeover of the Library Trustees.

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Inside the Fullerton Public Library.

 

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