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GUEST OPINION: County libraries should be protected

A committee is being formed to consider revising the joint powers agreement under which the Sonoma County Library System has operated since 1975. It is imperative to understand what changes are desired before the JPA is revised. The risk is that the changes could do irreparable harm — to the sharing of materials, to funding and to intellectual freedom.

David Sabsay, then library director, crafted a union of the libraries to provide cohesive, equal and accessible library service to all county residents. Prior to the JPA, the county library was under the Library Board of Trustees of the city of Santa Rosa. The JPA ensured local involvement through the creation of library advisory boards for the service areas of the branches.

The agreement created an independent library agency with minimal direct control by the Board of Supervisors. Each of the supervisors and the cities of Santa Rosa and Petaluma appoint a library commissioner, who serves without pay. The commission approves policies, expenditures, union contracts and the hiring and firing of the library director.

The Board of Supervisors approves the number of employees, their classification and wages and the budget. An annual report on the state of the library is mandated by the JPA.

The Sonoma County Library provides everyone in the county with access to the entire collection. Materials are moved freely throughout the system in response to customer demand. The materials are in one pool from which all may draw. The branch collections are reflective of their communities, but they are used by all county residents.

The library's budget is currently separate from the control of county administrators. The funds, 2.5 percent of 1 percent of the property tax, are library specific and cannot be siphoned off to fill potholes or pay for other county services.

Comparing other library systems in California should be evidence of the wisdom of this. All government agencies in the state are affected by the economic downturn. Closed days for libraries are widespread, but many libraries have also severely cut staff, materials and budgets, and some are charging fees for services. Some charge for cards issued to non-residents.

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