City and State Reps Keep Pushing to Avoid Library Layoffs, Closings As Budget Vote Looms; BPL Only Considers Temporary Reprieve; Trustee Arana-Ortiz Declines to Seek Public Funds

Boston city councillors, state representatives and library advocates engaged in what at times seemed to be hand-to-hand combat with BPL trustees and president Amy Ryan to avoid library closings and staff layoffs. A Brighton resident at the Monday hearing told the BPL, "Thanks you for your time, but we're at war. It's the little people against the BPL. The mayor is not our friend. State and city representatives are our only recourse." Repeated questioning by elected officials of the trustees finally led to an understanding that if city and state budgets could allow for a few million extra dollars, libraries might remain open but layoffs would continue. City Council president Mike Ross said he would take this up with his colleagues at the State House. Previously, BPL leadership had declined to agree to keep libraries open if funds were to be found, leading some to conclude that the proposed closings were part of a long-term strategy rather than borne of financial necessity.

But continuing tension between the BPL and elected officials was evident from the fingerpointing as to who caused the library funding crisis, as well as a growing frustration by library advocates over the BPL's lack of fundraising and advocacy for branches. "I find your relationship with the Massachusetts Legislature outrageous," said an emotional Byron Rushing, state representative for the South End. "You've done a bad job, and I am saying this in public because since I have told you this in private, nothing has changed. You have sent us awful lobbyists. You have to figure out how to have a regular relationship with this legislature."

Even though reports had circulated prior to the hearing that  library closings might not take place, it became evident during Monday's discussion at Rabb Hall that only a postponement was in the works, ostensibly because the mayor had become concerned about the impact of vacant buildings on communities. BPL president Amy Ryan said various efforts were underway, funded by library trusts, to "repurpose" the library buildings to mitigate the impact in the four affected neighborhoods (Brighton's Oak Square, East Boston's Orient heights, South Boston's Washington Village and Dorchester's Lower Mills).

Trust funds for libraries are usually intended to enrich libraries, not help close them, which is generally considered an operational expense.

Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry said she was "taken aback" by the trustees' direction. "Now it's a discussion about how to get an extension for nine months to see what else we can do with the empty buildings," Dorcena-Forry said, exasperated. "I want you to postpone the closings so we can discuss how to keep them open."

Rep. Martha Walz, who introduced herself as the daughter and sister of a librarian, said "we want to plan for the success of keeping the libraries open, not the failure of closing them." Referring to the  state budget amendment that would cut $2.4 million from the BPL's funds if it closed any branches, Walz reiterated, "Once you close them, there's no going back. The state legislature wants you to keep them open, or you'll lose state funding."

Public questioning of the lack of fundraising by the BPL  took a new turn at the Monday hearing when the trustees' vice-chair, West Roxbury resident Evelyn Arana-Ortiz, declared that despite her "love for libraries" she was "amazed" by the idea that she would "have to rub the backs" of politicians to fund the library. "It should be the politicians number one priority to do so"  without having to be asked, Arana-Ortiz asserted, which was met by calls from the audience for her to resign and "tell it to the mayor."

The mayor of Boston appoints all BPL trustees.

At-large councillor Felix Arroyo told Arana-Ortiz that asking state legislators to fund the library was not nearly as hard as "telling 50 staff members that they have lost their jobs" for lack of funding. "I'll go with you" to the State House, he offered.

Another member of the audience said Arana-Ortiz's statement "broke my heart." "If library advocacy is so distasteful to you, use us. Help us fund raise," adding the trustee's lack of advocacy felt like a "betrayal."

David Vieira, president of a citywide library friends group, told Arana-Ortiz there was "nothing wrong with lobbying for a good cause. It is not a matter of patting people on the back."

Until 2008, when two trustees well-connected at the state and federal levels resigned from the BPL in protest over the firing of the BPL president preceding Amy Ryan, trustees raised tens of millions of dollars for the BPL. They were not replaced with library advocates who had similar connections or financial resources themselves. Currently, one position on the 9-member board of trustees is vacant. Another is occupied by a trustee who is too frail to attend most meetings.