Santa Clarita Libraries The Focus Of Privatization Debate
In high school, Taylor-Kane worked as an aide at the local library. Fourteen years later, she and her niece continue to volunteer there. Her mother, too, has worked as a library assistant and aide at Canyon Country Library for 20 years.
“I have always been proud to live in a community that cares so much about its public libraries,” Taylor-Kane said.
Now, she is one in a sea of red shirts that scream “I Love L.A County Libraries,” the shirt’s typeface boldly defying the Santa Clarita City Council.
On Aug. 24, the council’s five members publicly proposed to withdraw the city’s three libraries from the Los Angeles County library system in favor of private management. The same night, the proposal was abruptly passed in a 4-1 vote.
Then came the lawsuits – one from Santa Clarita’s latest nonprofit, Save Our Library, which claims that the transfer of patrons’ personal information to a private company is against California law. Further, Service Employees International Union and nine other signatories accused the City Council of violating the Brown Act, which prohibits local government bodies from meeting in secret.
If Taylor-Kane’s mother wants to keep her job, she must seek reemployment by the private company, Library Systems & Services (LSSI), and accept less pay and the loss of her pension plan. Currently, Santa Clarita librarians make between $4,000 and $6,000 a month. LSSI is not obligated and has not disclosed what salary or benefits its employees receive. Its proposal for Santa Clarita includes reducing the staff among the three libraries from 85 to 58 workers.
Favel Jens, the communications specialist from Service Employees International Union, said the union will meet with L.A. County this month to discuss possible vacancies at other libraries for some of its member librarians.
“On a personal level, I just want to say that, just because something can be privatized doesn’t mean it should be,” Jens said. “The city has a balanced budget.”
SEIU and the Santa Clarita opponents call it privatization. The city council and LSSI adamantly repeat that it is not privatization; by terms of the contract, the city will continue to call the shots and LSSI will pull the trigger.
Councilmember Bob Kellar, the single dissenting vote, said his colleagues’ decision sprung from dissatisfaction with the L.A. County library system’s services and cost. Through its $4 million contract with LSSI, Santa Clarita expects to extend weekend hours and increase its book budget. Any surplus the library generates through property taxes can be allocated to other city departments.
Kellar said he continues to withhold his approval until he can be certain that LSSI is the right choice and that Santa Clarita can still collect the county’s $1 million special library tax. The county said it cannot retain the funds.
Kellar said, “It became increasingly clear to me the level to which so many of our citizens depend on our library system, and quite frankly, I was pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t anticipating the level of concern that came out.”
In a New York Times article, LSSI Chief Executive Officer Frank Pezzanite implied that his company shakes up librarians who are generally lazy and have grown too comfortable from their job security.
“You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement. We’re not running our company that way. You come to us, you’re going to have to work,” he said.
Opponents to the plan said they have been satisfied with L.A. County’s services and doubt that a library, historically a public institution, could be as attune to their needs once management is outsourced. The city council has since attempted to allay such fears by forming an advisory committee of community members, but opponents countered that this should have happened prior to the vote.
Margaret Donnellan Todd, the head of the county library system, said at the Aug. 24 meeting, “I am concerned that this decision appears to be based solely on saving dollars.”
Since then, the county library system has gone mute. Pamela Broussard, its public information officer, said neither the county nor its librarians are commenting at the time, but that they respect Santa Clarita’s decision. She confirmed she does not wish to burn any bridges until a contract between the city council and LSSI is finalized.
As setbacks to the city council’s plan grow, opponents hope time is on their side. Unsurprising to opponents, unexpected by the city council, L.A. County immediately halted reconstruction on the Canyon Country branch, refusing to foot the $25 million bill for a soon-to-be emancipated library. Still to be determined is whether Santa Clarita will purchase the Valencia Library and Newhall Library from the county. The Valencia Library alone was appraised in 2009 at $4.62 million.
Reach contributor Taylor Friedman here.
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