Community Library Charter Change Proposal Approved

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Thursday September 06, 2012

Duties and relationships between the city, the Library Board of Trustees, and the Library Director may soon be scripted in detail in the City Charter should the Council’s proposed charter amendment receive voter approval during the November election. The first public hearing was held August 27th.

The library, built in 1971, is a municipal library and therefore a department of the City of South Burlington. As such, the Library Board of Trustees and staff have had a range of responsibilities, receiving city assistance as necessary. However, about eight months ago, former Library Board Chair Jennifer Kochman discovered a governance issue related to library oversight. Under state statute Section 143, regarding municipalities being able to appoint a board of trustees, the board has full power over management of the library. Trustees also appoint the library director as well as “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 current City Charter only mentions that the city will appoint a Board of Trustees.

The City and trustees have had several meetings addressing the issue including a special meeting in April with guest speaker Rob Gieszler, Library Development Consultant, of the Vermont Department of Libraries. Gieszler had reviewed a lawsuit between the West Hartford Library and the City of Hartford, Vt. concerning who—the city or the trustees—had the authority to set the library director’s rate of compensation. In the “Hartford Decision,” it was ultimately decided, at the Supreme Court level, that the trustees had the authority. To avoid being in violation, South Burlington’s City Council turned to city attorneys for legal advice. Proposing a charter change was the “least onerous” approach to being compliant, according to City Council Chair Rosanne Greco.

After much discussion, City Manager Sandy Miller said during the public hearing, “It was determined that everyone agreed with certain provisos related to reporting, communications, so forth, that having a library act as a department of the city with the exception that the trust would have full control over the collection and management of issues related to that would be in the best interest of everyone. . . The trustees themselves did not want to run the library, manage the staff; they didn’t have the expertise, the time, nor the interest to do that.”

The City shared the proposed charter change with the current trustees who voted unanimously in agreement. The changes consist of the following:
Under the proposed charter change Section A, the Library will be a department of the city. Section B states the City Manager and trustees work together to appoint the library director. However, “Final appointment and removal authority is vested in the City Manager. The City Manager shall be responsible to evaluate the performance of the Library Director and the City Manager shall seek input from the Trustees.”

Section C states the trustees’ responsibility, with advice from the library director, to propose the appropriation of City revenues to the City Manager regarding the library. Additionally, trustees would have authority to “make, adopt, modify and repeal non fiscal Library policies such as content of Library collections.”

Under Section D, “Library Trustees shall serve as an advisory body to the City Council on areas such as the Library’s mission, location and facilities, including fundraising to support these areas. The City Council and/or city manager may seek input from the Trustees prior to implementing any action that would have a material effect on the Library’s operations, policies, or procedures.”

Finally, under Section E, “Library Trustees shall have exclusive authority to adopt, amend, and repeal bylaws which do not impact Library Finances, which concern the meeting schedule for Trustees and which relate to activities necessary to meet the advisory requirements of this Charter language. Bylaws cannot be in contradiction to the requirements or intent of this Charter.

Trustees and the city also signed a Memorandum of Understanding between City Council and Library Trustees and City Manager as well as a Memorandum of Understanding Clarifying Intent Language of Library Charter Change.

The only voice who questioned charter language at the first public hearing was resident Greg Johnston. Use of the word “may” instead of “will” does not sound concrete, he said.

“It concerns me that I see the loss of something I value very importantly in my library, and I’m not feeling reassured in what I’m hearing,” he said.

Current Board Chair Nancy Simson addressed Johnston’s concern.

“When we became aware of the Hartford Decision we felt it was placing us into a spot that we did not think would really benefit the library if we were tasked day-to-day to do administrative kinds of work,” she said. “The board feels strongly that our job is to make sure that the freedoms of the library are maintained and retained and...this is not gone away by implementing this charter change.”

Miller added that use of “may” was meant to accommodate reacting to emergency situations such as the Independence Day storm that left the front of the library completely flooded. In the Memorandum of Understanding, “we will make every effort” to work with the trustees, but that some situations require immediate action, he said.

At the September 4th second publich hearing, Jennifer Kochman, resident and former Library Board Chair, requested a change in language of the Council’s proposed charter change to say “shall seek” input from the Trustees instead of “may”; Her husband, Frank Kochman, voiced concern about the City proposing taking on responsibilities that, according to state statute, are responsibilities of the Board of Trustees. Current Board Chair Nancy Simson, Board member Jay Pasakow, and Library Director Louise Murphy each expressed that they felt the charter change was the right decision.

The hearing was closed and the Council voted unanimously to approve the charter change as written.

The proposed charter change as well as the two memoranda can be found on the city website at www.sburl.com.

SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent