Should State and City Representatives "Muddle" in Boston Library Politics?

A recent editorial in The Boston Globe, and another one in the Boston Phoenix, strongly opposed any muddling by state representatives in the affairs of the Boston Public Library. Specifically, the editorials referred to efforts by Boston state delegates to reduce state aid by $3 million if the city closes four neighborhood libraries, as the BPL trustees have voted to do. These budget proposals would still have to be passed in the State Senate where Rep. Jack Hart (South Boston), in whose district the Washington Village library is lcoated, one of the four condemned to close, has taken up that charge. While the long-standing animosity between state and city legislators over who controls which territory is understandable, lost in translation is the reality that the poor governance structure that controls the Boston Public Library, and appoints its president, precludes credible public input and public debates on many issues of importance to Boston's library users. The trustees are appointed by the mayor of Boston. They are neither vetted for their ability or past experience to advocate for the well-being of the public library system, nor are they confirmed by another professional or elected body such as, say, the city council, or a board of library specialists or a combination thereof. As a result, the trustees represent the interests of the mayor and his budget chief, not those of the 300,000  library card holders or the 600,000 Boston taxpayers.

The mayor has to manage a number of competing interests, most recently how to pay for an outrageous 19 percent increase in the firefighters' contracts; the library's needs are likely to pale in comparison. Which is why it is important to remember that the mayor's needs and those of the library community can easily be diametrically opposed. And why it matters who appoints the trustees and whose interests they represent. In addition to which there is the political reality that the mayor does not need to be reelected for the next four years, while our state and city reps need our votes every two years. They know they will get none from library advocates if they close libraries in an economic downturn, when we need libraries more than ever. Isn't that political leverage what democracy is meant to be about?

During the recent "special" BPL  trustees meetings about BPL president's Amy Ryan's proposal to "tranform the BPL" and eliminate a $3 million budget shortfall by closing up to ten libraries, the trustees repeatedly referred to their obligation to present a "balanced budget" to the mayor's office. The funny thing is that this obligation doesn't seem to exist in either the charter of the BPL trustees, as found on their web site, nor in their by-laws. What the charter DOES charge the trustees with is "the responsibility for the general administration of the Library and the representation of its interests and needs.  It shall serve as the advocate of these interests and needs in the community at large."

Having attended numerous trustees meetings in 2008 and 2008 on behalf of FOSEL, I can not remember any time when the trustees objected to the severe cuts proposed by Boston's budget chief Lisa Signori during two budget presentations for Fiscal Years 2009 and 2010. At no point did any of the trustees protest the fiscal screws placed on the thumbs of the BPL budget. Instead, the trustees went along automatically with the proposed reductions. In other words, the "needs in the community at large" for library services was not part of the trustees debate. The mayor and his budget chief said, "Cut,"  and the trustees agreed to do exactly that.

During this two-year period, there was no one among the trustees who made it his or her job to advocate at the state or Congressional level on behalf of the libraries in Boston. Two former trustees, William Bulger and Rep. Angelo M. Scaccia, who resigned when the contract for former BPL president Bernard Margolis was not renewed in 2008, had made sure that those funds would keep flowing to the BPL. When they left the board, they were not replaced with trustees who lobbied the state on behalf of the BPl, or the Congressional delegation, for that matter. In other words, no one was advocating for library funding at either the state, federal or local level for the last two years. Which is why library advocates, faced with library closings and layoffs of library staff, had no recourse but their elected state or city representatives, a point made by various members of the Boston delegation.

"Life is full of choices and the mayor has made a choice to fund some things in the city budget over the libraries," said Rep. Marty Walz of the Back Bay to the Boston Globe. "As Boston legislators, we are making a different set of choices. Our choices are to maintain the staff at Copley and keep all 26 branches open."