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State to look at library bill

Legislature will consider bill that would require vote before a city can withdraw from county librar

Posted: March 30, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: March 30, 2011 1:55 a.m.
 

Voters would decide whether a city can pull out of a larger county library system and contract out the operation of its own system under legislation proposed by a Ventura County assemblyman.

Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, wrote Assembly Bill 438, which, in part, promises communities an opportunity to vote on any city proposal that opts out of a county library system and contracts with a private company to operate the resulting city library system.

Santa Clarita, which is gearing up for the July 1 debut of its city library system, would most likely be unaffected by the legislation.

“I authored this bill because of the concerns raised by many residents of the city of Ventura, who are worried about additional lost access to free library services,” Williams said Tuesday.

The Santa Clarita City Council voted in August to withdraw from the Los Angeles County Public Library system to much public outcry. Library patrons and workers fret that the move will create a low-rate library system with fewer books and services.

Residents also took issue with a private company operating the libraries, citing privacy concerns, as well as concerns that public dollars will profit a private company.

But Santa Clarita officials are confident that they can run the three local libraries better and cheaper, too, creating room in the budget for more books and longer hours.

Joining Santa Clarita in departing from their respective county systems are Camarillo and Moorpark of Ventura County.

All three have contracts with Library Systems & Services LLC, or LSSI, a library-management firm, to operate the city library systems. Calabasas, too, withdrew from Los Angeles County and contracted with LSSI; Calabasas now operates its library in-house.

In October, the Ventura City Council reportedly voted to put the operation of the city’s two branches out to a competitive-bid process. The resulting public outcry was the impetus for Williams’ legislation.

Williams said he wants to the voters to decide on “opting out.”

“I think it’s unconscionable for private companies to make money off of public-library users,” he said. “And if we don’t think they are making money, then how do they have the money to hire two of the biggest lobbyists to oppose the bill?”

Growing company
LSSI runs more than a dozen library systems across the country.

The company has “hired two of the most effective lobbying firms in Sacramento to oppose AB 438,” LSSI spokeswoman Mia Pezzanite said Tuesday.

“This bill takes decision-making authority away from local elected leaders and sets a precedent by requiring voter approval for library-service contracts,” she said.  “If AB 438 passes and is signed, it will have an impact on the hundreds of services and procurement decisions made by cities and counties each year — police, fire, ambulance, recycling and waste management, franchise agreements for television and telephone services, service and maintenance activities for electric and gas utilities and the use of city- or county-owned property, just to name a few.”

LSSI officials boast on their company website that they: “Provide more efficient and effective ways to manage new and existing library operations.”

Responding to questions about an apparent “opting out” trend among Southern California communities, “We definitely have seen an increase in clients,” Pezzanite said.

“What we see from communities, generally, is that they are looking to have more local control over libraries,” said Pezzanite, who is the daughter of company CEO Frank Pezzanite.

Fifteen cities across America have chosen LSSI over publicly run libraries, she said.

LSSI doesn’t go looking for clients, Pezzanite said; client cities come looking for LSSI.

“In today’s economic environment, many local governments, especially those in California, are under increased pressure to reduce expenditures — without reducing services,” she said.

County involvement
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved last week a motion by Los Angeles County Mayor Michael D. Antonovich that would allow voters to weigh in on the “opting out” debate, and in so doing, put the brakes on cities leaving the county library system.

If a community wants to opt out of the county’s library system, it should be given the chance to weigh in on the issue, county leaders said in their discussions last week.

“We asked for a friendly amendment to the (state) legislation,” said Antonovich spokesman Tony Bell on Monday.

And the county asked Williams to go further in his legislation by widening the scope to include all counties in Southern California, and to broaden it to include any city that wants to withdraw, whether it also plans to contract with a private firm.

“Each time (the community) wants to pull out, the public has a right to participate,” Bell said. “In making the decision, there should be the right for input and for transparency.”

Santa Clarita unaffected
Michael Murphy, the city’s intergovernmental affairs officer, said the city’s library system wouldn’t be affected by the legislation.

“In its current form, it has no effect,” he said.

The city has spent more than $2 million of an estimated $8 million on startup costs and formed an ad-hoc committee of community members to devise the system’s strategic plan.

Santa Clarita is the largest city in Los Angeles County to not have its own city library system already.

The only way the Williams’ legislation would affect Santa Clarita is if language were added to make the bill retroactive.
And that’s not typically done, Murphy said.

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