Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Happenings: City Council Breaks What Wasn't Broken

Note: "This evening" and similar refer to the night of the 24th, of course.

There was just one important choice for the City Council to make this evening: allow the County of Los Angeles to continue running our local libraries, or hand over operations to privately-owned, Maryland-based Library Services & Systems (LSSI)[1][2].

As the meeting approached, the room teemed with hundreds of Claritans, over seventy of which were clad in bright red “I [heart] LA County Libraries” t-shirts[3][4]. Even more library devotees were standing outside the crowded room. Lynne Plambeck and Carole Lutness circulated serenely through the masses, seemingly pleased with the turn-out. Comment cards were distributed and shy, bookish types were urged to speak up. There was a palpable sense of excitement and camaraderie at the back of the room where residents stood shoulder to shoulder, ready to cheer on their own and fight misleading claims with heckles, head-shakes, and hisses.

It was the type of crowd that should have given the City Councilmembers some pause before making a decision about changing a system that has ably served residents for decades. The vast majority of speakers weren’t City Council “regulars," but people motivated simply because they love the current library system. Speakers ranged from under ten to over eighty years of age. They used libraries for myriad personal purposes, whether checking out the latest untranslated Korean drama, getting books on CD for long commutes, or conducting research for school reports. They sat alert and engaged well past ten o’clock at night. They brought up valid point after valid point in defense of the status quo: there are no major complaints about the current system; inter-library loans are fast and free; it is hugely beneficial to have access to all of LA County's millions of volumes and online resources; the County has never cut local library hours; and, most importantly, the system isn't broken and needed no "fixing."[5] But ultimately, the crowd was ignored. They lost their plea to keep local branches connected to a vast, diverse, and responsive network of libraries scattered throughout LA County.

And it was the very worst sort of loss. No one on the City of Santa Clarita staff or from LSSI was able to successfully articulate what they would do better than LA County[6], and their presentations were filled with gaffes, insults, factual errors, and unconvincing arguments. This made their eventual victory over the people of Santa Clarita all the more astonishing and insulting.

It began with presentations from Darren Hernandez and LSSI. So much of his presentation demands derision that it's hard to pick out the worst bits. One memorable moment was when a speaker pointed out that Hernandez had no grasp of the current state of Santa Clarita's libraries--he doesn't even own a county library card![7] In response to many questions, he offered intentions and hunches in place of promises and facts. For example, he spoke about "access" to libraries for those living outside of the City (e.g. someone from Stevenson Ranch can walk into the library) but made no assurances as to how much they would have to pay for full library privileges. He couldn't name complaints against the current system when asked. And best of all, he twice bragged about how LSSI-run libraries have more copies of a single book, Sizzling Sixteen, than does the County of Los Angeles. So if you like literature about a sassy bail bondswoman from New Jersey who tries to track down her cousin, Vinny, while having various sexual trysts along the way, then you'll have plenty of copies at your disposal once LSSI takes over[8].

The representatives from LSSI weren’t much better at making a case for the takeover. Their presentation stretched well beyond the allotted thirty minutes. (Rather insultingly, County Librarian Margaret Todd wasn’t afforded a similar amount of time to make the case for LA County control—Mayor Laurene Weste just gave her a last-minute allowance to exceed the normal three-minute comment period). We heard from LSSI employees like Barbara Wolfe of Moorpark, who chose to insult Santa Clarita's librarians by saying “I did not enter this profession for the promise of a government pension." Perhaps she was feeling defensive as she had unsuccessfully attempted to earn a Ph.D., which would make her less competitive an applicant for the expertly staffed County system[8] People from places like Shasta County (“one step away from Appalachia” as my friend put it) were flown in by LSSI to brag about how their company had brought about such sweeping changes as curbside book drop-offs, DVD collections, and weekend operating hours. It wasn’t long before residents became openly hostile to tools from LSSI bragging about how they delivered services that the County has long provided to the people Santa Clarita. Bob Kellar actually told the speakers that they were wasting time by being "repetitive", at which the crowd applauded uproariously.

I have already discussed the composition of the pro-County crowd and covered their main points, but I'll review them briefly. After LSSI spoke, Claritans delivered some two hours of testimony that was all but unanimously in favor of keeping local libraries a part of the Los Angeles County system. Despite their preference for County control, many were open to discussing LSSI or City control of library operations--they just wanted more time to become educated about the issue and to weigh all of the alternatives. County Librarian Margaret Todd said that she was "a little offended" at how the editorial staff of The Signal had disparaged her in their efforts to service the City. The City/Signal had done more to demonize her and the County as thieves than to discuss how to best operate libraries in upcoming years. There were a number of technical objections about whether the City could actually secure tax dollars it claims it can and about obligations to provide service to people in unincorporated areas. Most speakers didn't care that much about extended hours, the main perk that staff touted. There was even a cute little kid from Rio Vista whose parents wrote him a speech that made him sound like an old soul indeed: "We have enough things changing around us!" He knew his way around the library and didn't want it to change. Overall, there was no immediate need for such sweeping changes, and there were many legitimate reasons to continue discussing options for library management. Thus, there was no reasonable course of action to take other than continuing the item to a future meeting.

But who said the City Council is reasonable?

When it came time for the various members to discuss the matter, Laurie Ender went first. She was eager to dismiss the people who came to make comments at City Council meetings. She essentially said that the dozens of speakers at tonight's meeting didn't represent most of Santa Clarita, and that her discussions with disinterested, uninvolved school moms would play a larger role in shaping her decision than the testimony of passionate library users. Her main concern was opening a shiny new library that will appeal to moms like her simply because of its novelty.
Marsha McLean and Laurene Weste came off as even less astute than Laurie Ender, asking questions and uncritically accepting the responses of Darren Hernandez, even when he just offered guesses. (e.g., Would there be unduly lengthy delays of 3-5 weeks before loans from other libraries were received? The answer seemed to be maybe...hopefully not). Mayor Weste made infuriating remarks about how proud she was that people turned out in the interest of libraries and that they sat through the whole meeting, applauding them for "participation" rather than listening to the content of their words.

Frank Ferry gave a long and uninteresting speech about how all City money should stay in Santa Clarita and provide services to local residents. But prior to the last two years, Margaret Todd said that the County has given Santa Clarita libraries more than its residents paid in taxes. And even if Santa Clarita was "over-paying," it wasn't by much--about 6% of local dollars might be spent elsewhere in the County on libraries from which Claritans can freely borrow materials.

Finally, Bob Kellar said that his mind hadn't been made up and that he, like nearly all of the other speakers, wanted more time to think about the various alternatives.

But Bob's fellow councilmembers were in quite a hurry to fix a system that nobody complained about and that many loved dearly. Thus, 4-1, the agenda item was approved, and LSSI will take control of library operations in 2011.

It's clear that passage was all about the new library being built in Old Town Newhall. City seizure of the local libraries means formerly inaccessible tax dollars can be redirected to building the new library building, opening up other funds for various other uses in Old Town. Councilmembers eager for outward displays of their beneficence were worried that they might have to open a half-full library next year if the County stayed in control, which would make for a less than impressive ribbon-cutting ceremony. In short, the urge to make something new drove them to sacrifice one of the great, historic assets for those living in Los Angeles County.

After the City Council voted, the crowd started yelling "Recall, recall!" and then poured out of the room, defeated. Public opinion just no longer seems to interest the likes of Laurie Ender, Marsha McLean, Laurene Weste, or Frank Ferry.

More insults followed.

It was time to appoint new commissioners, and no one reappointed Diane Trautman to the Planning Commission, where she had been the sole voice of sanity.

Hunt Braly had been standing at the back of the room, fatly, before the final item, an "Urgency Ordinance", came up for discussion. Speaking on behalf of the large, established auto-dealers (FLEMWATCH alert!), he said he supported the City's moratorium on opening any new automobile retail sales businesses. The agenda item was truly ridiculous, citing potential health and safety dangers to the public as justification for the moratorium. In reality, it was protection for what many refer to as the good ol' boys network.

The meeting ended a little before midnight.

[1]Here is the agenda.
[2]There was actually a third possible choice: allow for a study/comment period of several months and THEN make a decision. This is what should have happened.
[3]I don't normally like attending meetings in person, but this is one I was glad to see first-hand. With all those t-shirts it was like disappearing into a red sea--I now know how Pharaoh's army felt.
[4]I've noticed that certain people have been writing the shirt motto as "I Love LA County Libraries." This is a mistake; it was a heart, not the word love, that appeared on the shirt. And there is a huge difference between hearting something and loving it. Take note, Christopher Glotfelty and Natalie Everett.
[5]Variants of the phrase "If it ain't broke don't fix it" (my favorite being "If it ain't broke, don't break it!") functioned as an oft-repeated rallying cry for pro-County forces.
[6]I'm not being completely fair. They said they would offer an additional nighttime hour of service and be open on Sundays for branches that currently aren't. Whoopee.
[7]His rebuttal was that he had several city library cards that worked outside of Santa Clarita, which brought only more laughs and ridicule from the crowd.
[8]Yes, that's an accurate plot summary of the book. Check Amazon.
[9]She apparently didn't complete her dissertation.


David Gauny said...

Thank you, IHeart. You are a wise and valued voice of humor and reason in Santa Clarita's theater of political absurdity. I agree completely with your perception of things and ALWAYS look forward to reading your council summaries. THANK YOU!

Martha said...

I am glad I didn't waste my time, sounds like it was a done deal before the meeting.
I am in library mourning over here...

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