All's Quiet on the BPL Front, While Library Advocates and Elected Officials Ponder Their Next Moves at City and State Levels

Last week's Annual Meeting of the BPL trustees was a quiet one, at least compared to the raucous three previous hearings when proposed closings of a third of Boston's local branches, and layoffs of more than a hundred library employees, became the focus of heated testimonials by library advocates and their city and state representatives.  This time, as before the upheaval started,  the usual thirty or so mayoral and BPL executives were on hand to applaud presentations by their colleagues,  nod in agreement with proposed BPL initiatives, and laugh at the boisterous jocularity of trustee chair Jeffrey Rudman and his perennial search for a good home-cooked meal. Also filling seats of several Rabb Auditorium back rows were a few dozen library advocates, eyes newly opened to the importance of  keeping watch over BPL trustees who, as recent history made shockingly clear, actually could be so daft as to try  and close their beloved local libraries. And herein lies the glorious difference with the way things were as little as three months ago: a sea change has taken place among Boston residents, media and the political establishment, suddenly aware of the critical importance voters attach to the libraries in their neighborhoods, an awareness accompanied by the uneasiest of feelings among library users that the BPL and its current leadership do not necessarily have their best interests at heart.

The question of who might stand up for them has already been answered by the unprecedented involvement of Boston's state delegation in the local matter of branch closings, as well as the outspoken opposition by a majority of city councillors who have objected to the plans by BPL president Amy Ryan to "transform" the BPL by shrinking it. The confusion surrounding BPL's stated reasons for shuttering branches and forcing layoffs, moreover, which ricocheted from "we can't afford 26 branches because the state cut our funding" to "even if we had the funding we would close libraries," likely has damaged the trustees' credibility. It also may have eroded support for BPL leadership by president Amy Ryan among library supporters and their elected representatives, as a cursory look at months of voluminous commentary on library coverage in the on-line press indicates. Add to that the lack of  advance political outreach to city or state delegates about a contemplated library transformation, and it is no longer hard to see that the BPL's actions may have disturbed as well the delicate balance of presumed public trust bestowed on those holding appointed office (as is the case for the trustees who are mayoral selections) in favor of elected office holders, many of whom face voters this year.

Trustees were forced to acknowledge as much at their  May 11 Annual Meeting when the city's intergovernmental liaison to the state, Keith Mahoney, described the effect of the adoption of an amendment sponsored by Boston state delegates to deny the BPL more than $3 million state dollars if it proceeds with library closings and layoffs, as well as the attempt by Rep. Angelo M. Scaccia to pass an amendment to undo such a move, which failed. Rep. Scaccia was a successful fundraiser for the BPL as a trustee until 2008, when he resigned in protest of the ousting of former  BPL president Bernard Margolis. More stinging was the reported decision by Senate president Therese Murray not to meet with the trustees until "after the budget is passed." This time, sounds of protest by trustee Paul La Camera about the "very constitutionality"  and "troubling precedent" of the state inserting itself in "sovereignty" of city matters were somewhat muted compared to his loud denunciations of state and city representatives at an earlier trustees meeting, when he excoriated them for not being in attendance when trustees had to cast the vote on library closings. "I don't want to further complicate matters for you," La Camera told Mahoney, somewhat ruefully. Just for good measure, the trustees passed a resolution opposing any conditional state amendments to restrict library funding.

A new library trustee joined the group, Carol Fulp, leaving just one vacant position on the nine-member board. Another seat remains occupied by Ms. Berthe Gaines, who is too frail to attend and therefore can't vote. Ms. Fulp's appointment, and her connection to Governor Deval Patrick, may have raised hope among the BPL directorate that she will influence the governor to veto any state budget amendment that would punish the city financially for library closings, in which case a two-third vote would be required for an override.  In addition to the election of Ms. Fulp, the board re-elected its chair, Jeff Rudman, for another term. The next face-off over the library budget will take place on Thursday, June 3rd, at 6:00 PM, when the City Council will hear testimony by the BPL's executives seeking support for the closings and layoffs, and their opponents, who are expected to make it a very long night.