Bylaws Question: Who Oversees the Library?

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Thursday May 03, 2012

A special meeting of the South Burlington Community Library Board of Trustees was held Wednesday night, April 25. The main purpose of this meeting was to gather expert information pertaining to the governance of the Library.

The Board had invited guest speaker Rob Geiszler, Library Development Consultant of the Vermont Department of Libraries, to explain the responsibilities of library trustees. After 41 years of the Library’s existence, what could possibly make this necessary?

This meeting was part of the process of answering the question: Who oversees our Library, the City of South Burlington or the Library’s Board of Trustees? The question arose in January, when Board Chair Jennifer Kochman asked City Manager Sandy Miller if she could revise the library’s “ancient” bylaws. Miller gave his consent. Kochman’s examination of the bylaws led her to discover that the Board of Trustees, rather than the City, is designated as the governing body of the library.

The South Burlington Community Library was created in 1971. At that time, the School Board and the City Council served as its steering committee, making final decisions about its operation, while the Board of Trustees was set up in an advisory capacity. The City Charter, section 13-307, allows the City Council to appoint the board of library trustees. There is no other mention of the Library in the City Charter.

What Kochman discovered is contained in the Vermont Statutes, Title 22, “Libraries and History.” Section 141 allows for a Vermont municipality to establish and maintain a public library. Section 142 stipulates that a municipality may appropriate money for providing facilities and maintaining a library’s collection. Section 143 allows a municipality to either elect or appoint a board of trustees. This section reads, “The board shall consist of not less than five trustees who shall have full power to manage the public library, make bylaws, elect officers, establish a library policy and receive, control and manage property which shall come into the hands of the municipality by gift, purchase, devise or bequest for the use and benefit of the library. The board may appoint a director for the efficient administration and conduct of the library.” This section, Kochman feels, calls into question the City’s oversight of the Library.

Geiszler described the two types of libraries that exist in the State of Vermont. The first is an incorporated library, which is an independent not-for-profit organization with 501(c)3 tax status. About 40 percent of Vermont libraries are incorporated. Bixby Memorial Library in Vergennes, founded in 1911, is an example of this. The second type is a municipal library, which is a department of a city or town government. About 60 percent of Vermont libraries are of this type, South Burlington Community Library being one of them. Everything seemed clear until 2002, when the Hartford Board of Library Trustees sued the Town of Hartford, VT over who had the authority to set the rate of compensation for the library director. According to Geiszler, the lower court favored the Town, but the Vermont Supreme Court overturned that decision and ruled that the library board had full power to manage the library and to set compensation for its director. Since the West Hartford Library is a municipal one, this case sets a precedent for all other Vermont municipal libraries.

In reaction to the Hartford decision, several municipal libraries have updated their charters to clarify that their library personnel are town employees subject to personnel and labor policies of the town and to the authority of the town manager. To avoid future ambiguity, some of the updated charters also specify that, in cases of conflicting provisions between town charters and Vermont statutes, the charters supersede the statutes.

The situation in South Burlington is further complicated by the fact that the library is shared by the community and the school. Geiszler’s reading of the South Burlington situation is that the Library Director is a City employee with responsibility for running the library and overseeing its day to day procedures. The Board of Trustees establishes the bylaws in compliance with State statutes and sets general policies. The City is the administrator of the library’s funds and accounts as well as the employer of the Library Director.

The next step in untangling this predicament is for the Library Board to meet with the City Council on May 8 for the purpose of clearly defining the responsibilities of each of them. Board member Jay Pasackow put it well at Wednesday’s meeting when he said, “There is no reason why the Board and the City can’t work together to everyone’s benefit.” The Library has served the community well and will continue to do so with the support of both the City and the Board. The May 8th meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. in the meeting room at City Hall. It is open to the public.

SOURCE: Lois Price, Correspondent