Children read books just outside the South Burlington Public Library meeting room last Tuesday. They were unaware of the library’s advocacy committee members, enclosed in the glass-walled space, discussing their role in a disagreement between city and school officials over stormwater at 180 Market Street. 

While committee members agreed to stay out of the quarrel, they expressed concern about the project’s timeline and the library’s lease at University Mall. 

The meeting began with committee member and library trustee Penne Tompkins debriefing her colleagues on the latest discordance between the school district and the city. Tompkins, as well as several other library trustees, attended last month’s steering committee meeting.

“The tensions were very high for the whole meeting,” Tompkins said.

She explained how the meeting began with a roundtable discussion about bettering communication and building trust. Tompkins then detailed the second half of the meeting in which the district and city discussed the stormwater issue. She said the boards didn’t appear to have a clear path for next steps, but that they did agree that “something had to go forward.”

Committee members expressed concern about the end of the library’s University Mall lease in late 2020. They were expecting to be in 180 Market Street before that time and wondered where the library would go if the stormwater disagreement delayed construction.

“The [UMall] space is a hot commodity,” committee member and library trustee MargaretAnn Cross said, adding she wasn’t positive the mall would extend the lease.

According to City Manager Kevin Dorn, the library’s lease will end in November 2020. Although the city thought it’d break ground on 180 Market Street on June 1, Dorn said they would “absolutely not make that.” Likewise, he said, “it’s starting to look unlikely” the new library will be ready for 2020. Depending on when a resolution is made with the school district and construction can begin, the city may need to ask University Mall for an extension on the library’s lease. 

“Which they may or may not grant,” Dorn added.  

Also during the advocacy committee meeting, Chair Bonnie Finnigan asked members if they felt they had obligations beyond attending public meetings on the issue. Tompkins replied that the committee  members should attend the meetings but that she felt the issue had become too nuanced for further action on their behalf. 

Cross asked if perhaps the question boiled down to impact. 

“If we look at this situation versus the situation where we encouraged the school board and the city council to work together to come to the memorandum of understanding, it’s like … do we think we can have a similar impact or make a difference,” she asked. 

Member Linda Darlington replied she wasn’t positive they could. 

According to Cross, the advocacy committee had previously approved a statement that said they would encourage the school and city to work together. She wondered if the committee might promote the “yes” vote gained for 180 Market Street by 70 percent of voters last November. Finnigan asked if that kind of promotion would be better suited for comments at another public meeting. She suggested committee members watch the steering committee meeting to recap what was said before placing themselves in the issue. 

“I guess the question is whether or not it’s worthwhile for us to go out to the general community,” Tompkins said. “But it’s just like putting fuel on a fire.”

Finnigan agreed, saying, “I feel like this is not our place; this particular issue is … not in our circle of influence anymore.”

In the end, committee members decided they would talk to library board of trustees chair Patrick Leduc and see if he felt a need for them to advocate. Cross felt Leduc’s knowledge of the issue made him a good candidate to write a statement, should one be made. Meanwhile, they discussed promoting the new library’s planned spaces.

 “Instead of asking people to support this stormwater issue, we can just remind them how much everybody loves the library,” Cross said. 

According to Leduc, the advocacy committee  members will share their thoughts with the full library board of trustees at its May 9 meeting. Leduc said it’s possible they’ll make a statement on the library’s behalf, but added he hopes there will be a resolution before the trustees meet. 

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