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City sued over libraries

Lawsuit: Residents allege Santa Clarita’s move to turn to private company could violate privacy

Posted: October 4, 2010 10:05 p.m.
Updated: October 5, 2010 4:55 a.m.
 

A group of residents filed a lawsuit against the city of Santa Clarita on Monday seeking to stop officials from taking control of three city libraries from Los Angeles County and turning over operations to a private company.

The lawsuit, which was filed in Chatsworth Superior Court, alleges that allowing Maryland-based Library Systems & Services LLC to run the city’s libraries would violate library patrons’ rights to privacy, said attorney Don Ricketts, who filed the complaint on behalf of the group Save our Library.

The lawsuit also alleges city officials may have violated California’s open-meeting law before the plan was approved in August.

City Attorney Carl Newton said he may challenge the legal sufficiency of the complaint.

“We really need to do further analysis on (the lawsuit), but our preliminary conclusion is that it’s without merit,” Newton said. “Under the law, (the lawsuit) may not be a proper form of challenge to the city. This will have to be argued out in court, of course.”

Matter of privacy
Ricketts argues that library patrons’ personal information — records of the books they have checked out and the websites they have viewed — are private, and if the city were to give that information to LSSI, it would violate state law and invade patrons’ privacy.

County libraries collect that same information, but have to keep the information private under state law, he said.

“You can learn a whole lot about a person by looking at the books they borrow,” said Ricketts, who added that he has paid for all of the legal costs so far.

“Do you want people calling you at 6 at night asking if you want to buy a sailboat if you checked out a book on sailboats?” he said. “LSSI might be as pure as fallen snow, but I have a right to keep that type of thing private.”

Santa Clarita officials referred questions about the lawsuit to Newton, who said — as with any contractor the city hires — LSSI would be under the same privacy restrictions as local government agencies.

“(Ricketts) fails to recognize that under the contract, (LSSI) would be operating as an agent of the city,” Newton said. “We would hold them to the same standards of privacy as the city and county.”

City officials have until July 1 to finalize the contract with LSSI. Newton said officials plan to stipulate in the contract that patrons’ personal information must remain private.

Molly Milligan, a senior fellow at the Center for Governmental Studies, said privacy restrictions would need to be clearly stated in the contract to ensure citizens’ privacy is protected.

“It’s a valid concern,” Milligan said. “One would hope these restrictions would be made clear in a contract so a person’s private information couldn’t be misused.”

Public meetings
The lawsuit also alleges residents were kept in the dark about the city’s library plan.

Ricketts repeated some residents’ unsubstantiated suspicions that City Council members violated open-meeting laws before they voted to take libraries back from the county at their Aug. 24 public hearing and vote on the issue.

The public was told of the plan at the council’s July 13 meeting, the one immediately before Aug. 24 due to summer recess.

“At this point in time, there’s no proof of a Brown Act violation,” Ricketts said. “It would take a significant amount of work to develop it.”

City Manager Ken Pulskamp and Deputy City Manager Darren Hernandez are named in the complaint filed Monday.
That would make it easier to force them to testify under oath, Milligan said.

The Aug. 24 vote to end county control of the city’s libraries followed three hours of public testimony. Most of the 200 people who showed up to the meeting came to protest the city’s plan.

Milligan said it would be difficult to establish whether the Brown Act was violated.

“It’s not unreasonable to think the council could reach a decision after three hours,” Milligan said. “That’s a lot of public exposure.”

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