Reporter’s Notebook: City plans to re-engage with community about libraries

Library closures, Take Two: City officials plan to re-start a community process designed to gather input on the proposed closures of four libraries, including the branch in Lower Mills. The process was halted earlier this year after drawing fire from state lawmakers, city councilors, and library activists. Mayor Thomas Menino agreed to delay the closings and have a more inclusive discussion.

They’re moving forward this fall, Boston Public Library President Amy Ryan said at Tuesday’s trustees meeting. Working sessions” will be held in October and November, where residents will be asked what services they value and the possibility of partnerships to replace the branches will be discussed.
The move sounds similar to a May meeting on “transitioning services,” where library activists pushed back hard on the proposal to close Lower Mills and the agenda library officials brought with them ended up being scrapped.

Meanwhile the Menino administration appears to be moving to patch up the wounds caused by earlier process, which left lawmakers and activists alike feeling shut out. Justin Holmes, the mayor’s constituent services chief who is well-liked and respected within City Hall and on Beacon Hill, has been brought in to work with library officials. He is also a Lower Mills native. And after avoiding sitting down with legislators earlier in the year, the mayor met Boston delegation in August. This week, Ryan was making her rounds to city councillors to discuss the community process.

Some councillors remain unsatisfied. An announcement that a full weekend schedule for the library system won’t take effect until the weekend of Oct. 15 drew criticism from Chuck Turner.

In an e-mail sent to library staffers, Ryan said the schedule offers a single weekend start date for the public and it allows time to ensure public service areas are staffed, considering that layoffs are still on the way.

“There will be significant changes in staffing that take effect October 1, the first day layoffs and staff assignments are effective,” she wrote. “Some staff will have new positions, others will be laid off, some will be called on to train co-workers—the impact will be widespread and challenging. By delaying the opening of Saturdays until the weekend after Columbus Day, concerns regarding lack of familiarity in Branch and Central procedures and services can be preliminarily addressed. I am also hopeful that once the bumping process has concluded more staff vacancies will be filled.”

Turner responded that he didn’t understand the logic of the policy. “If the staffing changes don’t happen until the 1st, I don’t understand why the library is being closed on 9/11, 9/18, and 9/25 in view of the fact that school is starting and I imagine Saturday September use by students is high,” he wrote back. “In view of the above concern, I would ask that scheduling changes that are affecting the operation of the branches or Central be announced to the Council before being put into effect so we can give feedback. While some may see that as the Council trying to micromanage, I think that in this transition period it is particularly important that we are informed regarding changes and our views are taken into consideration.”

Asked to comment, a Boston Public Library system spokeswoman said Turner and Ryan would be speaking via phone in the “very near future.”

The sparring spreads out
The sparring hasn’t been limited to library officials and opponents of the pending closures. In-fighting erupted last week between one library activist and a pair of members of the City Council.
For Brandon Abbs of the People of the Boston Branches, the cutbacks of the hours were a “final blow.” “Needless to say, this change will cut programs scheduled for Saturdays such as book sales for the Friends groups, language programs, and homework programs not to mention inconveniencing the families that this budget was supposed to help,” he wrote in an e-mail blasted out to his group. “By allowing President Amy Ryan to make this move, our mayor has given us Strike 3 in the library fight since June 30th.”

Abbs accused City Council President Michael Ross and City Councillor At-Large Ayanna Pressley of “failing to sign and send” a home rule petition on the mayor’s desk that expands the membership of the board of library trustees and allows them to fundraise. He also accused Pressley of abandoning efforts to save the branches.

The e-mail drew a sharp rebuke from Pressley’s office hours later. “Nothing could be farther from the truth,” she wrote. “Mr. Abbs’ e-mail is insulting, factually incorrect, and extremely detrimental to my ultimate goal of saving our branch libraries, strengthening and stabilizing the library’s finances, and ensuring the community has a role in shaping the 21st Century vision of the Boston Public Library.”

Pressley said that she had met with members of one of the library unions, AFSCME Local 93, which Abbs didn’t attend. “In that meeting, we discussed short and long-term strategies to keep branches open, address the system’s fundraising shortfalls, protect the jobs of librarians and support staff, and develop a more permanent community voice in the management of our libraries,” she wrote. “We all agreed that more research and information gathering needed to be done on our parts, in order to give us the best chance to save our libraries and librarians and make the most compelling and comprehensive argument.” The group plans to meet again in the fall.

Pressley also noted that she and Ross cannot force the mayor to sign the home rule petition.

Ross, in an interview with the Reporter, said, “The council has done its job” in passing the home rule petition. Ross added that he and Menino discussed the petition, and said that while he and Menino appear to disagree over whether the petition is the right path, “I think we both agree the library needs to do a better job of bringing in resources.”

He added: “I think the council is firing on all cylinders to protect this public resource…The council can delay, slow, perhaps come to new terms.”

The next meeting of the board of library trustees is scheduled for Nov. 16 at the Roslindale branch.
Corrections and Clarifications: A voter guide last week incorrectly referred to Dan Conley as Suffolk County’s “sheriff.” Seeing as that remains Andrea Cabral’s job, and Conley has not budged from the office of Suffolk County District Attorney, we regret the error.

Because of incomplete information on the Office of Campaign and Political Finance’s website, last week we wrote in this space that Fifth Suffolk candidate Carlos Henriquez had 12 donors contributing to his campaign through the end of August. The number is 54 donors, according to the campaign.

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