Mayor, BPL chief trade shots on JP Library

December 14, 2007
Jamaica Plain has become the latest battleground in a blistering public feud between Mayor Thomas Menino and recently ousted Boston Public Library (BPL) president Bernard Margolis.

Margolis contacted the Gazette last week to reveal for the first time his behind-the-scenes version of a controversial local story: Why he abruptly pulled the plug last year on planning for a Jamaica Plain Branch Library renovation/expansion project. That project is now back on track.

Margolis also discussed a new review of the branch library system that could affect JP. Showing his self-described tendency for “provocative” ideas, he said he is open to public discussion of possibly consolidating JP’s branch libraries—including a little-known, apparently discarded idea of swapping land with the First Baptist Church. Margolis emphasized he supports the current JP Branch plans.

Margolis claimed the Mayor’s Office ordered him to kill the JP Branch planning against his will, saying in a written statement it made him “sick to be directed to derail the process.”

“This is not a story I have publicly told,” he said in a Gazette interview. “I probably do this at great risk personally.”

Dot Joyce, Menino’s spokesperson, told the Gazette that Margolis was indeed directed to halt the planning, but not so abruptly, and only because Margolis had “wildly” inflated residents’ expectations for the size of the expansion.

“The mayor had to come in and be the bad guy because of the lack of Mr. Margolis’s leadership,” Joyce said.

One thing both sides agreed on was that local City Councilor John Tobin did a good job of getting the library plan back on track.

“It’s nice to be Switzerland,” Tobin said with a laugh when told of the feud.

Tobin said he likes Menino and Margolis personally, but is not surprised by their clashes.

“Clearly, they have different personalities. The mayor’s like Coach Belichick,” Tobin said, referring to the stoic, authoritarian coach of the New England Patriots football team. “He’s the coach. You’re the player. You’re the assistant coach.

“When’s the last time you saw [a Patriots] assistant coach talk in an interview? [Belichick] doesn’t let them. That’s the way the mayor has chosen to run his administration. It obviously works for him.”

Margolis has been talking up a storm since the BPL trustees voted last month not to renew his contract. He officially remains president through the middle of next year. But he has been using his lame-duck status as an opportunity for freedom of speech on a backlog of complaints about the Menino administration’s treatment of the library system.

In recent Boston Globe interviews, Margolis has branded Menino as an “anti-intellectual” bent on killing branch libraries. His claim that the Mayor’s Office ordered him to hire certain people reportedly has triggered a State Ethics Commission investigation.

“It’s too bad this is what comes out of the whole thing,” said Joyce about Margolis’s 10 years in office. “Unfortunately, he feels he has to continue to attack the City. It’s not good for residents.”

On the other hand, the Mayor’s Office has complaints of its own.

“When Mr. Margolis was hired, [the mayor] was looking to have a master plan for the branch libraries, and it was never received,” Joyce said, adding that Margolis also did not hire a branch library supervisor as requested.

The BPL board now has a subcommittee comprehensively reviewing the branch library system. It remains unknown how that might impact the JP Branch.

Death of a plan

Political feuds can generate more heat than light, but this one clearly had an impact on planning for the JP Branch at 12 Sedgwick St. The clash not only temporarily halted the plan, but also, Joyce acknowledged, resulted in the Mayor’s Office controversially leaving the project unfunded in next year’s city budget. Funding was restored after Tobin refused to vote on the budget without it.

Margolis’s recent complaints are also bringing into the open longtime behind-the-scenes and off-the-record conversations about possibly closing some branch libraries.

The BPL and city officials led a community planning process for years about the library renovation/expansion. In 2006, at a meeting that was supposed to unveil draft designs for the project, Margolis showed up in person and dramatically called off the process moments before the audience could look at the drawings.

“That was a horrible meeting,” Margolis said. “I made it very clear [to the Mayor’s Office] I did not think this was the right path to go.”

“I was instructed by the City to attend the planning meeting…and to make it clear that there was no money available for the effort under way,” Margolis elaborated in his written statement. “Mr. Michael Kineavy, director of policy in the Mayor’s Office, gave the order. I pleaded with the City to let the planning process continue, to no avail.”

Margolis said he could not specify the reason for the plug-pulling, but one factor was clear: “We realized very quickly maybe that it was creating more expectations than the City was willing to support.”

That was part of a healthy brainstorming process, he added, noting he encouraged residents involved in the planning to visit suburban libraries for ideas. One concept residents ended up considering was inviting a Starbucks coffee shop to share space in an enormous expansion. But, Margolis said, he was always aware of practical limits on the plans.

Joyce agreed with the basic facts of Margolis’s story, but with a strongly different perspective.

The brainstorming indeed raised expectations—to the point of “grandeur,” Joyce said.

“We knew we had to do an expansion, but it was never at that scale,” she said. “I think this is an example, or this project is an example, of how Mr. Margolis misled the expectations of the neighborhood.”

And while Margolis was indeed told to sober residents up, it was supposed to be through dialogue, not an execution, Joyce said.

“I think he did it in his own manner,” she said.

In any case, JP ended up caught in the Margolis-Menino crossfire. Some of the alternative designs were not enormous, but city officials did not resume planning or clarify the situation, apparently out of mistrust of Margolis.

Similar mistrust is why the planning remained unfunded—including the removal of an earlier, longstanding earmark—even when the community process resumed at Menino’s publicly announced order. Funding was “reinserted when…there was consensus on what we were looking at,” Joyce said. That included making sure it was in line with the scale of other branch expansions, she said.

There is now a total of $8.5 million in the city’s long- and short-range capital budgets for the JP Branch planning and construction. That was put in place after Tobin brokered meetings between administration officials and library advocates.

Tobin said Margolis should be credited with expanding the JP Branch plans to a necessary degree. The core of the plan is simply a requirement to make the building handicapped-accessible, along with some relatively minor repairs. But residents advocated successfully for a more thorough renovation and expansion of the heavily used, cramped library.

“I think Bernie was very, very helpful with that, and it’s something I’ll always be appreciative of,” Tobin said. “I think the administration eventually came around on that.”

Branching out?

The backdrop of the JP controversy is quiet questioning of the current, apparently popular BPL branch system.

Shortly before the JP Branch planning was killed, the Boston Globe had reported on a BPL Foundation study that reportedly suggested closing some branches. That added to the local controversy.

“The study was actually never completed,” Margolis told the Gazette, dismissing it as “flawed and inaccurate.”

“[The study] was leaked by someone at City Hall to the Globe,” he added. “I don’t know what leaking it was supposed to do.”

The BPL trustees now have a Neighborhood Services Committee reviewing the branch library system and brainstorming its future, Margolis said. It is chaired by Boston Globe columnist James Carroll.

Joyce said that committee is “absolutely” the sort of branch system review Menino has wanted for the decade since Margolis was hired.

“I don’t know what the outcome of that [review] will be, but I hope it will be one that involves vigorous public discussion,” Margolis said.

Asked if it could end up recommending some branch closures, he said, “Sure.”

But it could also mean new branches in areas like the revitalized waterfront. He also pointed to various models of library service, such as small-scale storefront libraries, or Singapore’s children-only libraries.

“We need to be looking at the whole range of what library services could be and should be,” he said.

Margolis said that JP’s branch library system grew out of old-fashioned “deposit sites”—basically a library bookshelf set up inside a store or church. It was public demand that led to establishing actual branch libraries, and demand should still drive decision-making, he said.

“I have been provocative…on the issue of, if there was a blank slate, would there be three libraries that serve JP [as there are now], or would it be one, or would it be five?” Margolis said. “I just like to stimulate [the conversation].”

That included discussing one idea that local officials have mentioned off the record for years, but that apparently was dead on arrival: a land swap with the fire-gutted First Baptist Church at Centre and Myrtle streets. The idea, which circulated after the 2005 fire there, would involve consolidating JP’s branch libraries in the church building, while the congregation would take over one of the former, smaller libraries.

“I’ve had people who live in JP say, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a brand spanking new library next to the post office [on the church site]?’” Margolis said. “That’s been suggested to me more than once. Certainly, I wouldn’t be averse to putting that on the table.”

Tobin previously circulated that idea privately, but says he opposes any local branch consolidation or relocation. The church swap idea, he said, “went over like a lead balloon” with people he talked to.

He added that he never discussed it with First Baptist Church leadership, who are in the process of restoring the church. Pastor Ashlee Wiest-Laird was not immediately available for comment.

Margolis said that he has not advocated any particular branch system or sites to the trustees review committee. And provocative ideas aside, he said, he strongly supports the JP Branch renovation/expansion project.