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.
One of the concerns voiced is whether a city is getting a fair share. Financial analysis affirms the cost effectiveness of sharing services. In the city of Healdsburg, $300,000 in taxes is generated, but library users receive $990,000 in services. It saves money to share administration, IT services, databases and materials. Would individual city libraries be willing to allow for county residents to borrow without charging for library cards?
One important function of a public library is the access of materials on a broad range of topics, with many diverse opinions, without regard to the popularity of the ideas stated.
The library director has the responsibility to protect the community's right to read. A director must be protected from political pressure brought to bear in censorship issues. If you think that censorship could not happen in Sonoma County, refer to the 2008 and 2009 Sonoma County grand jury reports that recommended filtering library computers. Filtering is censorship. It blocks access to information.
All need to understand what will be lost by changing the JPA. The library system could become subject to the political whims of elected officials when bombarded by small, vocal groups. Funds currently specified for libraries could be transferred to other services to meet the demands of other groups.