State reps. seek to save libraries

April 30, 2010
By

John Ruch

Egleston Branch plan still on hold

Jamaica Plain’s state representatives have signed onto a prankish state budget amendment package that calls the Boston Public Library’s (BPL) bluff on its controversial plan to close four branch libraries.

The amendments offer to restore a state aid cut that the BPL claims is forcing the closures—if the BPL agrees to keep the branches open. But BPL officials previously acknowledged that they want to cut branches as part of a modern “transformation” even if they have the money.

“[The budget amendments are] trying to push back and say, ‘If we’re going to make these kinds of cuts, let’s have a discussion,’” said JP state Rep. Liz Malia, who joined her local peers Willie Mae Allen and Jeffrey Sánchez in signing onto the package.

Meanwhile, supporters of the Egleston Square Branch Library are trying to raise awareness of a long-stalled renovation plan for that branch. Like a better-known renovation plan for the Jamaica Plain Branch Library, the Egleston branch plan remains in the city’s capital budget, but is once again unfunded this year. [See related article.]

Egleston branch supporters worked for years on the plan to renovate the exterior of the library at 2044 Columbus Ave. on the Roxbury/JP border. The plan includes a garden area.

The BPL board of trustees recently voted to make a new East Boston branch library its top capital project to make up for killing the Orient Heights branch in the controversial closure plan. But several critics, including local City Councilor John Tobin, have criticized that as leapfrogging over long-promised renovations at existing branches such as Jamaica Plain.

The Jamaica Plain and Egleston Square branches were both on one of the BPL’s hit lists for closure this month, but were spared in the final decision. Local library advocates fear that the BPL will try to close them again in coming years. But the BPL has said it has no such plans and is committed to fixing up the aging buildings eventually.

Reps. vs. BPL

The budget amendment effort has little chance of succeeding in the State House. It is largely a criticism of the controversial closure process, and another example of the soured relationship between BPL officials and most of the Boston state House delegation. BPL officials, it seems, have alienated many of the key elected officials who could help them with funding troubles.

BPL trustee Paul La Camera in particular blasted Boston’s state reps. for allegedly paying little attention to the library crisis at the April 9 meeting where trustees approved the branch closures.

Meanwhile, several state reps. blasted the BPL for a secretive and confusing closure process, and for never coming to them about the supposed budget crisis beforehand. A private meeting last month among BPL trustees and members of the Boston state House delegation reportedly went poorly.

Malia sat through an entire three-hour BPL trustees meeting last month—the first meeting that took public input on the closure idea. Sánchez made a key appearance at BPL-sponsored community meeting earlier this month, expressing confusion about the BPL’s goals.

Dorchester state Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry sparred verbally with BPL trustees at the April 9 branch closure meeting. She also wrote the budget amendment package.

“Essentially, it’s an attempt…to put the issue back on the table for discussion and stress the fact we were left out of all the details, and this is something that affects our constituents,” Malia told the Gazette.

State legislators previously took a direct approach, sending the BPL a letter on April 7—before the closure vote—asking for budget details. BPL President Amy Ryan responded on April 16—after the closure vote—in a letter obtained by the Gazette.

Responding to a question about the funding required to keep all branches open, Ryan wrote that the answer “will depend on a strategic plan” that covers all facets of BPL operations and costs. The BPL has no such plan at this point, though it is working on a “strategic framework” or “series of principles” to guide future decision-making.

Ryan also defended the branch closure process as marked by “transparency and public input.”

“In short, propping up the status quo in this changing world is not working for today’s services or into the future,” Ryan wrote. “Instead, our budget decisions have positioned the Boston Public Library for financial stability and sustainability long into the future.”

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