Joint Powers Board, Rhetoric and the Institution
It turns out that, for the past several decades, the Santa Cruz county library system has gone through a five-to-seven-year cycle of political and economic battles. In 2005, a series of plans to cut services and small branches was released. There was enough public outrage at the time that the board actually pushed in the other direction and voted to make it a cornerstone of their policy to never close branches. Like clockwork, almost exactly six years later and in the middle of our collaboration with outreach, another such moment of political, ostensibly budgetary, tension arose. A year and a half earlier, the board commissioned a task force with the job of developing several financially sustainable models for the library. In early February of 2011, the report was released – of the four options, two involved closing smaller neighborhood branches. Very quickly community organizers rallied their neighborhoods and what followed was a series of impassioned public hearings with hundreds of concerned citizens expressing their thoughts and feelings.
Even through the intentionally misleading and evasive rhetoric from both the public and the board, it was clear from the beginning that a line in the sand was being drawn: the board was split in its opinion. What initially surprised me, yet makes sense in hindsight, was that the librarians and library staff were almost unanimously in support of cutting branches. While there was much vague rhetoric surrounding the shifting role of technology to justify the closing of branches, the most pragmatic concern pushing the library staff’s agenda was job security and maintaining a certain standard for what a library should offer. Such a standard includes materials somewhere near the national average of ten percent, capital reserves for investing in new computers, and unexpected personnel costs.
Every public hearing begins with a brief introduction by the board, then the meeting is opened to public comments. With a video camera recording the speakers, we stood back and watched and listened. (When I say “we,” I am referring me and Daniel Kagan, an undergraduate art and communities studies student that received independent study credit for working with me for the academic year.) For public comments, anyone that wants to speak is given two minutes. Once the public comments are finished the board resumes to their agenda. There was quite a performative aspect to the public comments: parents dressed their children in scout uniforms and hand-crafted protest signs and one man bribed the Board members with homemade chocolate chip cookies. Over looking the occasional conspiracy theorist it was generally an expression of middle-class values with the intermittent lucid insight. The local news station began covering the story at the peak of people turning out for the public hearings.
We are beginning tonight, with the fight to keep libraries open in Santa Cruz county. Declining revenues has forced the ten-branch library system to cut services and debate whether some smaller libraries should be closed altogether. Well tonight nearly two hundred people packed City Council chambers to have their voices heard. (KSBW)
Similar to the task force report itself and the subsequent dialogue it produced, the KSBW news report goes on to dedicate an unusually high proportion of time to the topic of e-readers and personal electronics. Attempting to justify the closure of branches with talk of mobile devices is completely delusional and simply diverted attention from the real issues at stake. During the first public hearing, sitting with her fellow Board members on a stage over looking at a room full of people, Ellen Pirie commented:
Six or eight months ago, people around the table were saying they wanted to keep the branch libraries open but we couldn’t afford it. So we went into the task force – its charge was to see what we could do with this amount of money. What could we do, what was financially sustainable? So when I realized that… two of our four models met all this Board’s requirements, in terms of being financially sustainable, and every other requirement that this Board set out, and kept all the branches open, I was thrilled. I was just thrilled because I thought, ‘This board is going to embrace it. Our Director of Libraries is going to embrace it. We’ve found a way to make it happen’ So, my disappointment is profound. (Pirie)
The conflict quickly grounded itself between Option C and Option D. Option C argued that there are enough resources to keep all ten branches open, and Option D argued that there are insufficient resources for keeping all ten branches open. During the public comments, long-term former Council member Mike Rotkin argued in support of Measure D and the closure of branches.
The political reality is you have far, far more people, by orders of magnitude more… who use the downtown branch, a third of the users… and they are being disadvantaged by the proposal of Measure C. Now the problem that I think exists here, is that it’s not a temporary economic problem… it’s much more of a structural problem of what it costs to pay for healthcare costs, the materials cost, the fuel costs, and all the things it takes to operate a library. (Rotkin)
Option D proposed closing four neighborhood branches in a ten-branch system, under the belief that the rising costs of healthcare and retirement would be increasingly offloaded by the state onto the city budget, that the current materials budget for the library is already below the national average, and that the library system needs to make sizable investments in upgrading its computer system.
Supporters of Option C, argued that the library had been in similar situations in the past, and that county residents currently using the smaller branches had recently been the critical voting block in 2008 that approved Measure R, a local tax specifically set to support the library system. It was argued that closing smaller branches would break a promise to the community and alienate citizens from any future support of the library system. As Ellen Pirie explained:
If we adopt Model D, we will never again have a successful tax measure to support our libraries in this community. … Because we told people how we’re going use their tax money. And now we’re saying, ‘No, we’ve changed our mind.’ It would be one thing if we had to change our mind because financially we just couldn’t do it. If that was the case, we would stand up and say it’s impossible. … But in fact, it is possible. (Pirie)
At the cornerstone of what is possible or not possible are the librarians and the library staff. Option C presented the idea of “high impact” volunteers. One cannot expect to replace paid labor with volunteers and end up with the same results. While there was much talk of the library becoming a space for collaboration, the discussion surrounding labor and the dichotomy between paid labor and volunteerism was never questioned.
We went to all the public hearings and recorded and archived all the comments. As the public hearings were still happening, I translated the summary of the task force report into a website that allows visitors to quickly compare the key points of the four options and click on highlighted points to watch corresponding arguments from the public hearings. In addition to all the public hearing footage, the website made news coverage and original documents available for download.
Though citizens at the public hearings did not have a vote, visitors of the site were given the option to vote and leave comments. An email campaign was sent out and the site was available through library computers. As an aspect of the project the task force report emerged in response to the library staff’s expressed anxiety surrounding the situation. It will be interesting to observe the historical function of the site evolve as the library system continues into the future.