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Our View: An invitation to city’s library critics

The Signal Editorial Board

Posted: November 12, 2010 10:36 p.m.
Updated: November 14, 2010 4:30 a.m.
 

Editor's note: This editorial has been corrected with the exact date of Laurie Ender's City Council presentation and the correct Web address for the Santa Clarita Library system.

Enough is enough. The critics of the city of Santa Clarita’s decision to establish its own public library system have a choice.

Either they can become part of the solution and spend the next nine months helping craft a library system that serves the citizens of Santa Clarita, or they can pursue their orchestrated campaign to invent problems that don’t exist.

The past several weeks, the city invited all interested persons to join a Santa Clarita Citizens Public Library Advisory Committee. A week before Friday’s application deadline, about two dozen people had already signed up.

The committee is tasked with assessing the specific needs of the community and transforming those needs into a strategic plan.

Will the critics attend the meetings and participate in the process? They will, if they’re truly interested in creating a library system that meets the community’s needs.

Or do they have a different agenda? Time will tell.

After all, the criticism grew from a calculated effort by union labor leaders who stood outside the Valencia Library during the days leading up to the City Council’s decision, inciting library patrons with dishonest doomsday messages.

Patrons were understandably frightened. The union representatives had an obligation to try to protect their members’ jobs, but the misinformation and scare tactics were inexcusable.

Now, the fomenters of the dissent seem to think if they complain loudly enough, the City Council will reverse its decision to create a library system that better serves its citizens with more books, hours and programs than the county was willing to provide.

The organizers are wrong. It’s not going to work. The council will not be changing its mind.

The critics’ latest scare tactic — hiring a lawyer and filing lawsuits — simply makes them look pitiful. Any lawyer worth his salt should have advised his clients they have no case.

Confidential information
First, the lawyer attacks the City Council’s decision to hire the operator of the nation’s fifth-largest library system to run the city’s libraries — just as the city hires professional consultants and contractors to provide an array of municipal services where particular expertise is needed — on the grounds that the city will be passing library patrons’ confidential information to a private firm that might exploit it.

The lawyer suggests there are insufficient protections in the city’s contract with the future library operator. He is wrong.

The contract requires the operator to obey all laws. (Never mind the obvious fact that the operator would have to obey all laws even if the contract didn’t say so.)

Surely the lawyer knows it would be a violation of the California Public Records Act for any person involved in the administration of a library system in this state, whether government employee or private contractor, to “farm” library patrons’ data or use it for anything other than its intended purpose.

The same law that bars current county librarians from exploiting personal information today bars the city and its vendor from doing it tomorrow. Under state law, they can’t even tell you whether someone has a library card, much less what books they’ve checked out. Offenders would be arrested.

Second, the lawyer alleges that City Council members “must have” violated the state’s Brown Act by meeting in secret because certainly they can’t have reached a decision in a single three-hour meeting.

This unfounded allegation reflects a fundamental lack of understanding of the way local government works, as well as complete ignorance of the breakdown of the county library system’s finances over the last two decades.

Let’s pretend for a moment that an imaginary City Council walked into a meeting in August with absolutely no knowledge of the facts or finances.

Let’s say that during this meeting, for the first time, our Republican City Council in the conservative city of Santa Clarita was advised by its own professional staff that the county library system was sucking money out of our city and spending it elsewhere.

And let’s imagine that the opposition was a roomful of critics wearing red, union-provided T-shirts.

Do you suppose council members could reach a decision after three hours of testimony? It would probably take them no more than three minutes.

Library on chopping block
Now let’s look at reality.

The decision to establish Santa Clarita’s own municipal library system didn’t happen in three hours, and it didn’t happen in a vacuum.

It goes back to ... pick a point in time. Go back to 1976, when voters across the entire Santa Clarita Valley opted to secede from Los Angeles County and form our own county because L.A. County wasn’t providing the level of service for which we were paying.

Unfortunately, secession required the approval of the rest of the county, and county labor leaders convinced voters in other parts of Los Angeles County they couldn’t afford to let us go.

Even in 1976, we were the county’s cash cow.

Our current City Council members remember that.

Voters in the developed portions of Newhall, Saugus, Canyon Country and Valencia put a stop to the money-suck to a large extent in 1987 when they formed the city of Santa Clarita.

There were specific exceptions — the county library system being a big one — but by and large, for the first time, taxpayers’ local dollars were returned to them on a one-to-one basis in the form of full municipal services.

Our current City Council members remember that.

Today the unincorporated communities that have grown up around Santa Clarita in the interim are in the same boat. One day they, too, will incorporate — either independently or by joining the existing city — for the same reason.

Let’s move to the mid-1990s, when the county faced one of its many annual budget crises.

The Newhall library was on the chopping block. Local library patrons trekked to downtown Los Angeles and rattled their sabers at the supervisors, who ultimately relented and kept the little library open.

One particular City Council member, Marsha McLean, remembers that very well because she led the charge.

Secession studied in 1990s
Turn up the clock to the late 1990s, when the city paid for and built the Canyon Country Jo Anne Darcy Library, replacing a small, antiquated library that the county refused to expand.

At the time, the city commissioned a study to assess the feasibility of seceding from the county library system. The study found it was feasible, but the city decided to remain in the county system. It wasn’t ready. The city was only a dozen years old.

A decade and numerous county library cutbacks later, the city is funding and building another library, this one replacing the 53-year-old Newhall library that everyone agrees is too small to serve the modern community.

The City Council appointed a subcommittee of then-Councilman TimBen Boydston, who runs the Canyon Theatre Guild in Newhall, and McLean, a county library commissioner who is intimately familiar with the system’s pluses and minuses, to study the issue of the city’s county-run libraries.

When Boydston left the council in 2008, newly elected Councilwoman Laurie Ender, a mom with kids and friends who patronize the public libraries, replaced him on the subcommittee.

By way of background, a City Council subcommittee consists of two council members who work on a particular issue.

There are all sorts of council subcommittees for all sorts of issues.

Appointed by the full City Council, subcommittees enable our elected representatives to delve deeply into complex issues and give guidance along the way to their hired staff. With two members, the subcommittees avert violation of the Brown Act, which would come into play if a majority of the members, in this case three, were working the same issue.

What did this council subcommittee learn about libraries? For one thing, it learned the county refused to help fund the construction of the new, $25 million Newhall Library — even though the county library system takes $400,000 more from city taxpayers each year than the county spends on libraries here.

So the subcommittee recommended to the full City Council that the city bear the total construction cost. And it did.

Current level of service
Then the subcommittee learned that not only wouldn’t the county help build the new Newhall library, but the county wouldn’t fill it with books and services, either.

Even with a big, new, city-funded building to accommodate 53 years of increasing demand, the county would do no more than provide the current citywide level of service.

(The county librarian has said the city never sat down with her and tried to work it out. That is, if you’ll pardon the expression, crap. After the fact, she sat in our office at The Signal and told us the same thing she told the city early on: No matter what, she wouldn’t increase citywide service.)

So the council subcommittee and staff figured out what it would take for the city to operate its own library system. They learned that state law enables cities in Los Angeles and Riverside counties to secede from their county library system with a simple vote of the council, and they identified an operator with experience in running libraries, since the city had never operated a library with its own staff.

Subcommittee recommendation
During the July 13 City Council meeting, one of the subcommittee members — Ender — gave her subcommittee report and told the full council that the subcommittee would be recommending secession from the county library system when the council reconvened after its summer break.

Our current City Council members remember that.

Many Signal library articles and editorials later — the same ones you read — the council reconvened in August and voted to do exactly what the subcommittee recommended.

They didn’t need to meet in secret to reach a decision — and for that matter, they didn’t need three hours of testimony.

Were their minds made up before the meeting? Yes, if they’d been paying attention over the past month, or the past year, or the past decade, or the past lifetime.

We said the organizers of the rebellion have a choice between becoming part of the solution — or not.

They, like you, also have a second choice. If you live in Santa Clarita, you’re still a county resident. Come July 1 when the city inaugurates the Santa Clarita Public Library system, you can hang onto your county library card and use the county libraries or the city libraries — or both.

For more information about the city’s libraries, visit SantaClaritaLibrary.com.

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