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Close to Home: County library isn't broken

  • Ron Whipple, left, and Joseph Rapozo put the finishing touches on new bookshelves in the Central Sonoma County Library in Santa Rosa on Thursday afternoon. The refurbished library will reopen on Monday. cc0930.Library

The Sonoma County Library has been studied for more than a year by a committee investigating the rules under which it operates. The committee has come up with some decent recommendations, but is has run into trouble trying to develop an equitable power-sharing formula. While the committee has been trying to fix the library, the library itself has gone a long way toward solving its problems.

Moreover, the rules that the library operates under have been shown to be pretty good. It is time for the joint powers review committee to admit that and stop trying to fix something that is not broken.

The Sonoma County Library is governed by a very good piece of government called the joint powers agreement. Most counties provide library service through both city libraries and county libraries. Libraries get most of their income from property taxes. Cities have more per-capita property tax base and better funded libraries while the county usually has to provide library service with less funds.

In Sonoma Count,y between the 1950s and '70s, all city libraries joined the Sonoma County Library system and formed a joint powers agency, with the founding principles of increased service and equity of service. Cities got more library service than they could otherwise afford, and they were freed from having to run a library. Every library in the county strives to offer high quality service and has to be open the same number of hours.

The Sonoma County Library did splendidly for 40 years, and then in 2008 the meltdown reduced property taxes. This forced an unpopular director to make an even more unpopular decision. Sandy Cooper closed the whole library system on Mondays, its busiest day of the week. She thought this was the best way for the library to live within its means. That decision angered a lot of people, and they went to their supervisors. The supervisors could not change the library's direction or its director directly. For this reason and several others, the committee formed to see if the joint powers agreement was the best way to run the library.

Supervisor Mike McGuire and Healdsburg City Manager Marjie Pettus got Sonoma County's mayors and council members to ask the Board of Supervisors to form a joint powers agreement review advisory committee, composed mainly of city officials.

They have been meeting since October 2012. They meticulously went over the whole agreement. They have found that most of it was good. But, being cities bent on re-taking a piece of the county library, they drafted a new agreement. Instead of a seven-person commission, the new vision is of an 11- or 13-member commission, one or two from each city and some from the county.

The committee has gone to the county and each of the county's nine cities. There they ran into trouble. The Healdsburg City Council said that a clause that allowed each city to raise its own funds was a deal breaker. Santa Rosa, Petaluma and the Board of Supervisors are at odds over representation on the new library commission.

In the meantime, the library fixed itself. The director who closed Mondays is gone. Under the leadership of two interim directors plucked from management, the library has made a new contract with the union, something that seemed impossible under the previous director. The library has yet to re-open Mondays, but it is working on it. The library needs a new director. That cannot be done with an uncertain new set of rules. The library is not broken. Do not fix it.

Bo Simons has worked for the Sonoma County Library for 30 years and is now manager of the Healdsburg Regional Library.


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