By Edward Shanahan
Time is winding down on my four-year term as an elected trustee
of Forbes Library, and I'm still waiting for the first reporter
- any reporter from any publication - to show up for our monthly
The board's secretary dutifully posts on the City Hall bulletin
board the date and time and place of the meetings, as required by
the state Open Meeting Law.
And still they don't come, never a notebook-toting reporter to convey
to the taxpaying public information about the issues and inner workings
of the city's main library. It must be that libraries are judged
to be unimportant, or what they do and talk about at their meetings
too boring, or 4 p.m. on a Monday is a bad time for a reporter.
Members of many city boards and committees undoubtedly would prefer
not to have press scrutiny, to be able to discuss issues and personalities
without the prying ears and eyes of a reporter. Because of my background
as a journalist, I feel the public is short-changed when it is not
let in - for whatever reason - on discussions and decisions relating
to public issues.
While the concept of open meetings has merit in terms of providing
for accountability by elected officials, it is a meaningless accountability
if the public is unaware of who is taking what position and voting
for which proposal and why. Without media coverage, the public remains
so far in the dark it does not even realize it is missing out on
critical, even important information.
Open meetings uncovered by the press are closed meetings. Simple
Thus, it has to be admitted that the Open Meeting Law is a sham
when it comes to having access to information about Forbes Library,
which claims a significant chunk of the overall city budget.
The proposed city appropriation for the next fiscal year is $890,000,
or nearly $1 million. That puts it behind only the school, public
works, police and fire departments in terms of the municipal dollars
that it spends, or the number of employees that it supports.
In addition, because the library is a quasi-private institution
deriving funds and marching orders from the will and bequest of
its benefactor, Charles Forbes, the elected trustees also manage
a considerable endowment - currently valued at some $3.5 million
- income from which is used to purchase books and library materials.
The city has never spent a penny on book purchases, but does fund
operating expenses, salaries, building maintenance. etc.
Before I joined the trustees, I guess I assumed that there would
be very little heavy lifting in the job, after all how controversial
can a library be.
Three and a half years later, I would have to alter totally my original
judgment about the benign nature of the public library.
And as an elected trustee, I thus offer a summary report to my constituents
on some library issues that emerged over the last 40-plus months.
but were discussed in a vacuum.
During that time, a major physical renovation was completed, an
expensive consultant's report was commissioned and debated, often
acrimoniously by trustees, budget cuts forced operational and personnel
changes, a number of difficult personnel issues emerged, there was
a lengthy battle over redefining the job of business manager, which
resulted in the creation and hiring of an assistant director. There
was a nasty fight over selling Smith College an easement so the
college could build its parking garage to the scale it wanted.
There were frequent pointed discussions about the management of
the library's endowment and the appropriate instructions to give
the professionals who were handling the money.
Emerging from time to time were issues having to do with the library's
collection - book and otherwise - and how decisions are made about
what to keep and what to jettison. The relationship of the Calvin
Coolidge Room to the library and its demands on the staff came up
but no consensus was reached as to how much time and municipal resources
the library should devote to maintaining a small presidential museum.
The on-going issue of lack of parking at the library and illegal
use of scarce space by non-library patrons - students at Smith College
and customers of Green Street businesses that rent from Smith College
- dominated many meetings and led to the creation of a parking committee,
which presided over the development of a wildly expensive plan for
the expansion of parking and landscaping for which is there no money.
And what about that rather large memorial installed on the grounds
behind the library to the late and estimable Bart Gordon, but without
so much of any mention of it to the trustees in advance? Its very
existence came as a surprise to most of us on the board. Odd project,
oddly carried out.
These were all issues that might have been of interest to the public
if it had known that such matters were under debate. But ignorance
was bliss, for the public if not for the trustees.
Now the library has embarked on the second and final phase of its
overall renovation plan, the transformation of the second floor
art and music department and the creation of a local history room.
It will be a costly project - probably in the range of $2 million.
It will be paid for with a state grant, city money, a public fund-raising
campaign and principal taken from the endowment, which will reduce
the income available to purchase books and other library materials.
And it is not known by the public - because there was no one there
to report it - that there was not a consensus on moving forward
with this next renovation. The trustee vote to award the construction
contract for the work was 3 to 2.
But, how would you know about this division unless you were told.
And why would two members vote against the project? You, or your
representatives in the press, would have to ask them. Don't bother.
It's too late. The stairwells to the second floor are already sealed,
the books have been removed, the work is well under way.