EDITORIAL: Mayor must end divisive library fight

It’s time for Mayor Menino and his administration to stop their divisive and ill-conceived push to close public libraries —including the one in Dorchester Lower Mills. Menino should formally withdraw his library board’s recommendation to close the four branches from his proposed FY11 budget when the traditional negotiations with the city council begins in earnest next month. But, he shouldn’t wait until then to make this change public: He should speak up now, spare our communities further anguish and injury and then get to the business of articulating exactly what long-term reforms he envisions for the library system.

The decision to close these four library branches has been portrayed as the last-ditch effort of a cash-strapped city that has no other choice but to cut back on its spending in a miserable budget climate. In fact, the branch closings mark an abrupt policy shift that seeks to exploit the challenges of a difficult budget season to shutter key neighborhood resources without adequate public input or a thoughtful and well-reasoned explanation from Menino or his deputies.

Lawmakers who have pressed Menino and his aides about this shift have been told that even if the state finds funding to bridge the city’s roughly $3 million budget shortfall in the new fiscal year, the BPL and Menino refuse to commit to keep the branches open. This posture from the mayor’s administration speaks to the incoherent nature of present-day BPL policy: Last year, the city spent well over $30 million to build sparkling new libraries in Mattapan and Grove Hall — amenities long-overdue in these communities and heralded by Menino himself as major achievements of his administration. East Boston, rightfully outraged over the plans to shut down Orient Heights, is also promised a new library branch. And yet, privately, his library leadership seems to view these neighborhood branches as redundant relics of an age that will soon give way fully to technology, making bricks-and-mortar outposts like Lower Mills unnecessary. Under this philosophy, this month’s vote by the BPL board of trustees is the first step towards paring down the city’s branch libraries and “streamlining” services in anticipation of this transformation.

The trouble is, Menino and his team have utterly failed to make their case and have veiled their policy shift under the guise of budgetary hardship. If this decision were strictly a matter of what’s fiscally responsible, then the board and Menino could have availed themselves of another option presented to the trustees: To curb library hours system-wide, spreading out the burden of cuts across the shoulders of the whole city. Not a single trustee voted for this option and Menino also neglected to exercise his right to pursue this far more equitable plan.

Instead, Menino’s budget paints the sacrifice of Lower Mills and the three other neighborhood branches as a positive development that “lays the foundation for the libraries to deliver truly 
21st century services to customers.”  How, exactly, does the mayor explain that one to the residents of Lower Mills? So far, he hasn’t even tried. 

If the mayor has concluded that branch libraries like Lower Mills need to change the way they serve the public, that’s fine. Let’s hear his vision for how that will happen. The people in this neighborhood are ready to work with Menino to help transform the branch into a model of “21st century” innovation. What we are not prepared to do is allow this administration to close our library without any clear indication of what comes next to replace its services in our neighborhood.

The best course of action for the mayor to take is to withdraw the BPL language from the budget when the traditional first round of budget revisions takes place in June. He should replace it with language that funds all existing branches — including provisions as needed to trim hours across the system to navigate budget gaps. And then he should personally convene a meeting with Lower Mills stakeholders to explain what he would like to do to modernize services in Lower Mills village in the coming years. 

- Ed Forry