Public, trustees talk past each other about use of funds
Anyone who thought the fireworks in Crescent City ended on July 4 wasn't at the Del Norte County Library Board's special meeting last Thursday morning.
More than 25 members of the public showed up for the 9 a.m. meeting - that's about two dozen more than usually come - and even though "Triplicate Article and Letter" were the only items on the agenda, that didn't stop those in attendance from airing their grievances about various issues that had been on some people's minds for months.
"Usually (the meetings) are pretty dull, but this one was exciting," library Trustee John Mertes said. "I think a lot of people saw it as a chance to be heard, and a lot of them spoke out."
The only agendized issues - which concerned a letter to the editor that the board had hoped to draft, as well as a July 3 Triplicate article that publicized a previously disputed,undisclosed, and undesignated $346,741.77 library fund balance - were pushed aside for a passionate public comment period that transformed the meeting into more of a back-and-forth town hall event. The dialogue, which became aggressive at times, primarily addressed topics like why the money had been overlooked and what was going to happen to it, as well as how the Library Board election process worked and why it seemingly hasn't been followed correctly, as some frustrated community members claimed. (A report on election-related discussions at the meeting will appear in Thursday's Triplicate.)
"Public comment is not available now. The public comment period is over," board President Dennis Sutton repeated ineffectively several times during the meeting, but the frustrated meeting attendees wouldn't be reined in.
"You're making historical changes to the record, and I really find that offensive." said Angela Glore in reference to some trustees' explanations of the undisclosed fund balance. "You're lying to us."
Glore regularly attends the meetings and has announced her intention to run for a trustee position in the November election.
Frugality or incompetence?
The trustees' accounts of what had happened in regard to the undisclosed money - which was only one of the issues that brought Glore and others to cry dishonesty and even caused some in attendance to laugh in disbelief - leaned heavily on a theme of frugality. To the aggravation of the attendees, the trustees' explanationsdidn't touch much on the incompetence and carelessness that meeting attendees had accused trustees of.
"We're proud that we have a reserve," said Sutton, who managed to keep a jovial demeanor throughout the otherwise tense meeting. "Are there times that we could've done things a little different? Had we known a few things we might have done things a little different. But I'm proud of having a reserve in this economy that nobody else does."
But the money - $346,741.77, according to county auditor Clinton Schaad's records - isn't actually a reserve at all, as audience members pointed out.
"It's actually not called a reserve. It's designated in the budget as a fund balance. And that $346,000 is right now an undesignated, unrestricted fund balance," said meeting attendee Kelly Nolan, coordinator for Del Norte Reads, a literacy program that operates under its own budget. "And what Schaad pointed out when he was at the meeting was if the library wants to designate a chunk of money for a project, then it needs to be identified and put into a reserve. So this talk about a reserve that we have? We don't have a reserve. We have a fund balance. If the board wants to create a reserve, then they need to create a reserve. The talk about, 'We have a reserve; we have a reserve,' is an inappropriate designation title."
In an interview with the Triplicate, Schaad confirmed that the money will be considered an undesignated fund balance until trustees decide how to allot it, which they'll need to do before Aug. 31, when the final library budget is due. Schaad, who made clear that he doesn't think anyone was trying to hide money maliciously, showed up at the board's June meeting to teach trustees how to designate the funds, as well as how to budget correctly.
For his part, Sutton explained that funds not being designated was his responsibility and said that it will be on the agenda to take care of at the next meeting on July 24.
"It's my fault it wasn't brought up in the past to be put where it should have been," Sutton said.
But at least until the money is designated, the fund is only considered a reserve to those who choose to think of it as one, which some trustees clearly did and many audience members obviously didn't.
At the meeting Trustee Colleen Luttrell recounted a story in which an unnamed community member who holds a position on a local board told her how proud he was of the library trustees for their prudent budgeting.
"'Tell (the trustees) how proud (we are) that you have a reserve in these times because we don't,'" Luttrell quoted the person telling her. "He said, 'You have been smart enough and frugal enough to have a reserve.'"
Members of the public in attendance weren't buying it, however. Some brought up the fact that even after Mertes made it known last November that the money existed, other trustees denied it for months, saying there wasn't money available to spend. Only when Schaad showed up at the June meeting to confirm the money was there- seven months after Mertes had announced it-did trustees acknowledge that Mertes had been right, audience members said.
"You didn't even know it was there!" said Angela Stanley, interrupting Luttrell while she was telling her story. Stanley has also announced her intention to run for a trustee position in November.
"I was at the meeting where you said, 'We don't have any money; we can't do that.' When (Mertes) told you the money was there, you all denied it. This is about incompetence, not about frugality."
Trustees claimed that Mertes had shown them an incorrect balance figure and that was what they had denied, not the fact that the library had money in the bank. The initial figure Mertes gave them, trustees said, was closer to $450,000, which they said they knew was impossible.
"(Mertes) said we had $455,000, which we don't have," Sutton said, even though he admitted they didn't know exactly how much they did have. "We knew there was money there. We asked how much, and the auditor's office didn't have an exact figure, and that's how it missed getting into the budget. It's not that we were hiding anything. We knew we had it."
'I don't really know that they accomplished much'
However the money came to exist, the fact that it's there is real. But even after all the questioning, explaining and storytelling last week, not much was decided in regard to exactly how the money would be used.
"I don't really know that they accomplished much of anything at that meeting," Stanley said.
It's a subject that will inevitably be broached again at future meetings, even if it was only touched on last week. Meeting attendees brought up potential uses for the money: more books, better books, a cleaner library, a new library not located in a tsunami zone and employee raises, but no concrete plans were made to do anything with those suggestions.
"The things they could do with this money," Stanley said. "They could make the library a wonderful, happy place of learning for our community. I'm really hopeful that in the upcoming years we see some major changes in how the library is run, the hours, and hopefully even the location and size of the building. I'd like more programs, a summer camp, maybe the library to stay open past 6 p.m. so that people who work can go."
Trustees acknowledged most ideas and generally responded with why a proposal couldn't be done or what had already been done, which prompted accusations of defensiveness and repetition from audience members.
"I'm still hearing a lot of defensiveness and repetition," Michelle Driscoll said to the trustees at the meeting. "And a lot of rationalization. I'm not hearing, 'I guess we need to be listening better.' I haven't heard that expressed in any way, really, that you are hearing from the community in some ways that you haven't before and some acknowledgement of that."
For example, in regard to book acquisition, instead of directly addressingcriticism or ideas, Sutton pointed repeatedly to a new program called Zip Books that allows library users to order a book at the library and have it sent directly to their house. Then they can read it, return it to the library and order a new one. While attendees acknowledged that the program sounds nice, it doesn't suffice for being able to come in and browse, audience members said.
"We don't get books that are well-chosen," Driscoll said. "We get a lot of romance and a lot of detective stuff. I've been wondering a long time about the buying process here."
Additionally, trustees kept going back to what they had already done for the library, which they felt they weren't being recognized for.
"We painted the library three times for free," Sutton said. "We got money donated for shelves - I drove to San Francisco, got them, brought them back; we put them in. We've done a lot of things to make the library better. We've done quite a bit. It kind of feels bad to work as hard as we have and get all the negative attitude."
The trustees' efforts and accomplishments couldn't be denied by even the most visibly upset public attendees, eventually drawing recognition from audience members, but not enough to rouse anyone to applause when one person suggested it.
"I think everybody appreciates what you have done for the library. They're not criticizing that one bit," one meeting attendee said. "I propose that we give you a round of applause in appreciation for what you have done."
Sutton also said that he doesn't know what's going to happen with the money, but after it's properly designated on the budget later this month the trustees will take some sort of action.
"I don't know what we'll be doing, but we'll be doing something," Sutton said.
For some, however, that didn't sufficiently answer the question of the morning - how the money will be used.
"There's a lot of frustration in the community right now, and people are coming out with it finally," Driscoll said. "A library is an educational institution and not a business. It can't be thought of as a business. The community's needs are for more professional and educationally-oriented stuff. If you have a reserve, then that's wonderful - but it's like saving all your money until you're dead. What's the purpose? How does it help the community?"
Reach Aaron West at firstname.lastname@example.org.