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City Officials Consider Takeover Of Library System

Fuming Over Closures, Officials Considering Takeover Of System

By JEFFREY B. COHEN And STEVEN GOODE | Courant Staff Writers

July 17, 2008

Hartford's mayor and city council leaders are so ticked off over the decision by the Hartford Public Library's board of directors to close two neighborhood branches that they're considering taking over the library system.

How the city would engineer such a move is unclear, but city council President Calixto Torres said Wednesday that he and Mayor Eddie A. Perez want to look into it. They know this much: the city gave the library $8.2 million this year.

"It's time to consider looking at taking the full management of the library as a specific department," Torres said. "It's something we're beginning to discuss and to see as something that is probably the way to go so we can ensure we don't have these things happen in the future.

"Because, right now," Torres said, "we have no control, but the community thinks it's the council, somehow, that is closing these libraries down."

Closing a library is about as popular as eliminating high school football and is the kind of political battle no one wants to lose. But the battle has come down to money.

The head of the library board of directors says there isn't enough money to keep the Blue Hills and Mark Twain branches open; the mayor and the council say the board could find the money if it tried.

But despite urging from the city officials and residents and a petition for an injunction forcing the library to reopen them the board of directors is standing by its decision to keep the branches closed.

"We can't open without money, and we already laid people off," board President Geraldine Sullivan said Wednesday.

To help cover a gap of almost $870,000 in this year's operating budget, the library board announced in June that it would shut the Blue Hills and Twain branches and lay off 40 employees. The closing of the branches, library officials said, would reduce the budget gap by more than $530,000.

Perez and city council leaders reacted to the announcement by sending a letter to library officials suggesting that they consider other options, including allocating funds from the library's $14 million unrestricted endowment, an additional reduction of library hours throughout the system and a reduction of library programming.

Earlier this week, Perez reiterated those suggestions in a press release and called on the library board to hold an emergency public meeting so that residents could "air their views on the closing of two popular library branches in the Asylum Hill and Blue Hills neighborhoods."

"The members of the library board need to hear from the people firsthand on how closing these two branches is not in the best interest of our children, their families and this city," Perez said in the release.

Sullivan said the board would not hold an emergency public hearing because it was aware of the residents' feelings about the closures, and Sullivan maintained that without an influx of funds the branches wouldn't reopen this year.

"Why raise expectations when we can't meet them," Sullivan said.

Sullivan rejects the suggestion to take money from the unrestricted endowment fund, pointing to the recent financial difficulties of the Mark Twain House and the Old State House.

"We have a fiduciary responsibility and we're not going to do it," she said. "We have to protect the library for future generations."

That did not please the mayor, who said in a statement that he was "disappointed that the library board is refusing to meet with the community" and "take the city up on its suggestions and offers of staff assistance and guidance."

Councilman Pedro Segarra accused the board of playing politics and making a bad situation worse. He called the branch closings "surgical strikes" that are "very calculated and political choices" designed to "inflame the masses."

"People should cooperate with one another and communicate and negotiate," Segarra said. "To have polarization when what we have is an absence of dollars doesn't really yield anything good."

None of this provides any solace for Donna Thompson-Daniel.

"They're playing games," said Thompson-Daniel, president of the Blue Hills Civic Association, the neighborhood affected by one of the branch closures. "Everyone's blaming everyone. The city council is blaming the library. The library is blaming the mayor. And I say, these people are the ones with the power, they should be able to open up the library."

Sullivan, who was unavailable for comment regarding the city's possible takeover of the library, has a date in Superior Court in Hartford Monday for a hearing on the petition for an injunction forcing the library to reopen the branches.

Brenda McCumber, spokeswoman for the Laurel Corner Neighborhood Association, which is one of the plaintiffs, said Wednesday that the ideal outcome of the hearing would be for a judge to force the library to reopen the branches.

Failing that, McCumber said she hopes the group's action will prompt the city and the library to begin working on a compromise that would have the same outcome.

"We hope the library can find a way to reduce its needs and expenses, and the city can find some money," McCumber said. "But we have to make noise for our neighborhood."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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