Privatized Library Foes Lose Their Battle in Court
City website announces (privately run) Santa Clarita Library opens July 1.
Those fighting a decision to privatize the operation of the Santa Clarita, California, libraries have suffered a series of setbacks in court. It now looks unlikely that they will be able to stop the switch to private operation when the scheduled date arrives - July 1, 2011.
The choice by the Santa Clarita City Council is not unique, not a first, but it is the one that grabbed the most national attention. Much of the publicity may be attributable to the fact that there was no immediate budgetary crisis threatening the Santa Clarita libraries, while these moves had previously generally arose in the context of a library on the financial brink. Santa Clarita councilmen voted last summer to withdraw from the county library system and convert to city-operated libraries. It then hired out the operation of those libraries to Library Systems and Services Inc., a Maryland-based corporation.
The result was an uproar from a sizable number of local citizens. They believed the quality of service would deteriorate, and savings the council claimed would be realized would not materialize. Some, undoubtedly, felt for librarians and staff, many of whom are likely to either find themselves out of work, or offered jobs at reduced wages. LSSI needs to provide cost savings to justify its hiring, and it appears that employee compensation is likely to be an important source for savings. Something must give to generate both those savings plus the profits LSSI intends to make.
A group known as Save Our Libraries was formed to fight the privatization. They hired legal council and took the city to court. Their first action involved privacy rights. The group claimed that turning over citizens' library records to a private corporation violated state constitutional privacy rights. That suit was dismissed in December. In February, a suit by a private citizen alleging Brown Act violations also went down to defeat. The Brown Act is an open meetings piece of legislation. Finally, in March, a suit alleging another code violation was also dismissed by a judge. This suit claimed that the action by the council was invalid because the city did not have a library board of trustees, and that only such a board could legally contract with LSSI. The suit was dismissed on technical grounds. Barely a week later, the council did appoint five library trustees. Usually in such circumstances, the board simply appoints itself to the positions. Instead, the Santa Clarita council appointed five high school students, though the budget is many millions of dollars. Perhaps high school students will prove more adept at managing public funds than did their parents.
Residents also presented a petition to the council with around 10,000 signatures opposing the change. Some signatures were clearly fake, such as "Fred Flintstone," but it is not clear whether this was a significant percentage, or if the fakes were put on by supporters trying to inflate the number, or opponents attempting to make the petition look phony. Either way, the council was unmoved.
There remains one Save Our Libraries claim on the docket. This one involves the California Public Records Act, designed to assist citizens in knowing what their government is doing. However, this case will not be heard until October, long after the transfer to private management has been completed.
Privatized Library Foes Lose Their Battle in Court
Union sponsored "Privatization Beast" website opposes private management.
Opponents of privatized management did achieve a victory elsewhere in California. The City Council of Stockton, along with the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors, rescinded an earlier plan to hire LSSI to run its libraries and stuck with local control. Meanwhile, a bill has been submitted to the state legislature that would require voter approval before a community could opt out of a county library system and hire a private contractor to run its library. However, even if this bill passes, it will be too late to change the results in Santa Clarita.
On the surface, this is a debate about how to run a library. In reality, it is more a proxy war for much larger issues. There is a battle of political philosophies raging across the land, and this time, not even the public library, once the domain of mild manners and quietude, is immune. On one side are those who believe in public works, public employees, nonprofits, workers' and union rights. On the other side are those who believe in private companies with nonunion employees, spurred to greater efficiency by the incentive of private profits.
A website, PrivatizationBeast.org, was launched to gather support to fight the city's plan. The site claims that some once free services will now require payment to access. Its sponsor is the Service Employees International Union. The Santa Clarita Library workers are part of the union. On the other side, LSSI CEO Frank Pezzanite was quoted last September in the New York Times, talking about "a lot of libraries," as saying, "Their policies are all about job security... You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement…You come to us, you're going to have to work." The contempt drips from his lips. In a letter to the Editor, American Library Association President Roberta Stevens objected to the "demonization" of library workers. The Santa Clarita Valley Signal, a local newspaper, weighed in in favor of the changes, saying, "Big Government is the problem, not the answer." The editorial continued, "LSSI's personnel costs are 15-percent lower than the county's," attributing this primarily to it having a private retirement plan, rather than having to pay in to the public employee retirement fund. Whether reduced benefits for library workers is a positive all depends upon your point of view.
The Santa Clarita Library story reminds us more of Wisconsin and the battle there over unionized public workers. It also reminds us of recent proposals to privatize Medicare. This is perhaps the biggest issue in America today, and it may well decide the results in the next national election. As Bob Dylan once said, in a very different time, "there's a battle outside and it's raging." That battle, like all of our other previous internecine wars, stayed outside the library walls. Quiet prevailed. This time, not even our libraries are safe.