Menino hedges support for BPL trustee legislation

Weeks after his administration signaled support for a proposal giving the Boston Public Library’s board of trustees more members and the ability to raise funds, Mayor Thomas Menino is raising concerns about the idea.

While saying he was reviewing the proposal, Menino said the board’s job is to “set policy” while the Boston Public Library Foundation’s job is to raise money. The proposal, unanimously passed by the City Council on June 30, would set up “two competing operations” in terms of fund-raising, Menino said.

Because it what’s called a home rule petition, the proposal needs not just the sign-off of the mayor, but also okays by the Legislature and the governor to become law. It was sponsored by City Councillors Michael Ross, Ayanna Pressley, and Felix Arroyo, and had the support of the board’s chairman, Jeffrey Rudman.

Several councillors voted on the fiscal 2011 budget in part because of talks with Menino administration officials, who said the proposal would receive the mayor’s approval. “This represents a departure from what the administration said,” said Ross, the council president.

Ross called the current set-up with the trustees and the foundation “antiquated.” “It’s time they adopted funding strategies that are on par and similar to other nonprofits across our city,” he said. “The model that works is a strong board that raises money and that gets results.”

At a hearing on the Boston Public Library’s budget earlier this year, councillors were concerned to hear that trustees do little to no fund-raising, particularly at a time when the library system is suffering from cuts in funding and impending library closures.

Four library branches, while granted a nine-month reprieve in June as part of the fiscal 2011 budget, are on the chopping block, including the one at Lower Mills. Library officials pointed to a $1.6 million budget gap as necessitating the closures, as well as the need for a consolidated and modernized library system.

But Menino said the blame should not fall to the trustees, whom he appoints. “Blame some of the parties” who cut swaths of funding for the libraries in the first place, such as the Legislature, he told the Reporter.

Menino said he was working to find a way to ensure the trustees and the foundation work better together.

“I want to give him the benefit of the doubt to do so,” Ross said. But the councillor, who represents Mission Hill, Back Bay and Beacon Hill, also noted that the proposal had the unanimous support of City Council and “tremendous” support from library activists and the board chair.

Days before the June 30 vote, Rudman, while saying he could not speak for the board, said in a letter to Ross that the proposal had his backing. Rudman did not return a phone call seeking comment.
“The simple fact is that the BPL should be bringing in more money,” Ross said.

The proposal also adds four members to the nine-member board. “I think there are people out there who would welcome the opportunity to serve in a leadership role on the board of the Boston Public Library,” Ross said. “And I think there are those who can do that and raise money for the library.”

The proposal appears unlikely to make it to Beacon Hill in time for the end of legislative session on July 31. Lawmakers will continue to meet after that date, but informally with rules that allow one legislator to hold up a piece of legislation.

“I thought that was already agreed upon and it would be coming to us in the Legislature,” said state Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry, a Dorchester Democrat who lives down the street from the Lower Mills branch. She is the wife of Reporter managing editor Bill Forry.

Asked about the Legislature’s cuts to the library system, Forry said, “It’s a blame game. I think that’s why it’s important that the lines of communications have to be open and we have to work on having a dialogue.” She added: “The whole notion of shutting libraries during tough economic times doesn’t make sense, because they are the centers of neighborhoods.”