December 12, 2017

Residents Sue Escondido Over Library Outsourcing

Escondido Public Library patrons rally around their library
Photo credit: Save our Escondido Library Coalition

Roy and Mary Garrett, residents of Escondido, CA, and longtime library patrons, are suing the city over its decision to privatize the Escondido Public Library (EPL). Officials voted in August to turn library operations over to Library Systems and Services (LS&S), a private for-profit company that manages public libraries, to forestall a projected citywide pension shortfall. In October, the city council voted to enter into a ten-year contract with the firm. Many residents have opposed the move from the beginning, noting that city officials pursued the plan without asking for input or presenting alternatives.

LS&S, originally a cataloging system and software provider, began managing libraries in 1997 with the Riverside County Library System, CA. The company’s practice of replacing unionized workers with non-union employees has generated controversy, as has its substitution of a remote reference service for local reference librarians in libraries it manages starting in 2000. The company currently manages nine library systems across California, and a total of 20 systems nationwide.

If the contract is enacted, Escondido would be the first community in San Diego County to privatize its public library.

COST-CUTTING MEASURES

The city administration first floated the idea of privatizing library operations in April at a budget meeting. Because Escondido maintains its own police department, rather than contracting for those services as do other cities in San Diego County—and therefore has to cover those pensions—and due to underperforming investments made by the city pension plan in recent years, Escondido was looking at a mounting pension liability projected to reach $15.5 million in 2021. More than 700 city employees are covered by the California Public Employees Retirement system, with another 900 former employees currently receiving pensions. According to Mayor Sam Abed, Escondido needed to come up with $40.3 million over the next five years to maintain city services at current levels.

Citing a San Diego County Grand Jury report filed in March stating that the library was not offering sufficient services to meet community needs, city council proposed to outsource EPL to LS&S. According to city manager Jeffrey Epp, the move would result in potential savings of some $400,000 a year, to be realized chiefly through cutting operating costs and eliminating pension obligations. Outsourcing proponents claim that the private company could run the library more efficiently and affordably than the present administration and staff.

Representatives from the firm had discussed a possible contract with Epp over several months, and presented a proposal to the library management team, the board of trustees, and the library foundation. If Escondido entered into the contract, explained LS&S chief financial officer and chief operating officer Todd Frager, the library would still be owned by the city but LS&S would provide all services. In addition, all current library employees would be given the option to continue as employees of LS&S. The current interim director would remain an employee of the city, and would serve as a liaison while LS&S conducted a national search for a permanent director. The library board, which is appointed by the mayor, would remain in place at will.

Library workers who stayed on with LS&S would, however, no longer have pensions paid into by their employers. “Employees who want to stay on the city pension system, [they] can find other jobs within the city,” noted Frager. At press time, Escondido listed nine open positions, four of which were for police officers; the library has 22 full-time and 22 part-time employees.

“Those who choose to make the move to LS&S, Frager said, “won’t lose [their pensions], it just doesn’t continue to accrue any further than it is at this point.” Instead, LS&S offers a company-matched 401K.

“The whole value of having LS&S [managing the] library system is that the libraries are still ultimately local,” said Frager. “Most libraries we run, you’d never even know we’re running them. Because [there are] still local people doing the local library functions. [Patrons] assume it’s the city who runs it because that’s who’s always run it. But because of our size…there’s certain efficiencies we can bring,” including the high-volume buying power of what is essentially the third-largest library system in the country.

As part of his case for privatization, Epp noted in an August 15 editorial in the San Diego Union-Tribune  that “Google, Microsoft, and Facebook are not run by government workers. Our packages are now delivered as often by Federal Express or [UPS] as they are by the U.S. Post Office. Even most books we read are authored by private citizens and published by private companies.”

OBJECTIONS TO OUTSOURCING

When news of the city’s plans reached the community, concerned residents formed the Save Our Escondido Library Coalition to mobilize support and further investigate LS&S’s role as a corporate manager of libraries. And “the more we researched, the less this looked like a good idea…that would serve Escondido very well,” said Debbie Ressler, Escondido resident and founding member of the coalition.

The coalition turned up a number of facts that gave city residents pause, including a poor performance review of the LS&S-run library system in Jackson County, OR, which included a lack of transparency about how funds were allocated and a minimal collection of Spanish-language materials.

“[LS&S is] known for cutting corners, they are known for hiring minimum wage workers and not degree-certified librarians—that’s one way that they save money,” Ressler told LJ. “They also seem to take advantage of volume discounts and volume purchasing, which means that their libraries, in whatever cities they’re in, regardless of the makeup of the communities, seem to have very similar collections of books. In Escondido, our community is more than 50 percent Hispanic. Yet what we’ve learned about other libraries that LS&S manages is that they don’t have an adequate number of resources, whether it’s Spanish-speaking staff or materials printed in Spanish, for those members of the community. That would be a huge disservice to our community here in Escondido.”

Coalition members noted that the library’s budget represents only 3 percent of the city’s general fund. They also noted that the spreadsheet submitted to city council claiming the switch would provide $400,000 in savings overlooked public donations—one-fifth of EPL’s annual book budget—and attached no value to the thousands of hours of volunteer work the library currently receives. These sources of revenue will end or be severely reduced, they claimed, once the library is privatized. Additional negative impacts of outsourcing, the coalition said, would include the loss of long-time, quality, local staff who would not remain as LS&S employees, as well as potential loss of support for an upcoming bond needed for a new library.

The American Library Association and Public Library Association also voiced their opposition to the library privatization in an August 8 letter to the city of Escondido.

In his Union-Tribune editorial, however, Epp posed the move as a choice between the library and other city services, referring to upcoming contract negotiations with the Police Officers Association and Firefighters Association. “It will be tough to tell them the city took a pass on $400,000 savings and cannot make public safety the highest priority,” he wrote. “They may point out that when citizens dial 911, they don’t expect a bookmobile to show up at the door.”

On the weekend before city council met to vote on the proposal, about 500 residents received robocalls touting the library privatization plan, with a single-question push poll asking whether they supported it. The calls were underwritten by Escondido mayor Sam Abed, who is up for re-election next year, using funds from his campaign.

COMMUNITY VOICES UNHEARD

Escondido residents roll out the Unwelcome Mat at a rally outside the library
Photo credit: Save our Escondido Library Coalition

Hundreds of Escondido residents who opposed the move gathered before the August 23 city council meeting, and some 90 spoke out in opposition to the outsourcing, including representatives of the Escondido Library Foundation, the library board of trustees, library volunteers, and the Save Our Library Coalition. A petition circulated by the coalition collected some 4,000 signatures, but was dismissed by the mayor.

“It seemed like the mayor in particular didn’t even want to hear or consider anything negative that was found about LS&S,” recalled Ressler.

Former library director Loretta McKinney spoke of her experience with LS&S-run libraries, the San Diego Free Press reported, stating, “They cannot provide the same or better services and make a profit.  Our library is not broken. This is not the only way to address the pension issue.”

Abed, in turn, claimed responses from his robocall poll showed that community members approve of the change in management, although he did not produce the numbers.

The city council proceeded to vote 3–2 to privatize EPL and turn management and operations over to LS&S, with Abed and council members John Masson and Ed Gallo in favor. Of the municipal representatives present, only councilmember Olga Diaz—who ran against Abed in the 2014 mayoral race—expressed an objection to outsourcing, although councilmember Mike Morasco also voted against it. “There is plenty of taxpayer money for core services, including libraries, if elected officials and bureaucrats stop confusing voters by shuffling their money around and diverting it to pet projects,” Diaz stated in an op ed for the Escondido Times-Advocate.

The board of trustees unanimously opposed the action as well. The San Diego Free Press called the vote a “shocking display of community and political deafness.”

This is not the first time the city’s decisions about the library have drawn public ire. In 2011, the city council voted to close EPL’s East Valley Branch, located in a community center in a neighborhood serving a high number of seniors and lower-income residents. When the city announced the planned closure, Garrett came forward with a donation that would allow it to stay open for another year while other solutions were explored. City officials turned Garrett down, however. The library’s assets were sold off and the building leased to a local charter school. Nowhere else in San Diego County was a public library closed during the economic downturn.

“It’s an emotional experience for everyone. We understand that,” said Frager. “We appreciate the passion and the energy that come with these conversations…. We’ve spent a lot of time talking to the Friends, the foundation, and others, to make sure that they’re comfortable with the ongoing relationship and get their support.”

TAKING IT TO COURT

As the city council readied to negotiate a contract with LS&S and work out legal and labor issues, opponents to the move began to mobilize a lawsuit against the city, citing the Municipal Libraries chapter of the California Education Code, which states that a library shall be managed by a board of trustees. Garrett, a retired lawyer who has sued the city in the past and won, stated that the city council did not have the right to outsource library services. City attorney Michael McGuinness responded that Garrett’s interpretation of the law was incorrect.

At the board meeting the day before city council’s final decision, Garrett urged trustees to take a stance on the issue. The board demurred, however, citing the need for a court decision first giving them the right to manage the library. The library board of trustees is appointed by the city council, and its charter cites the board’s role is “to give sound and timely advice and counsel to the city council.” Any court action would have to wait until after the council had signed a contract with LS&S.

On October 18 City Council voted 4–1, with Morasco joining the majority, to enter into a ten-year contract with LS&S beginning in mid-January. The contract amount—$2,545,000 during the term from July 1, 2018 through June 30, 2019, with the city additionally reimbursing LS&S for a minimum of $250,000 in library materials that the corporation would purchase—includes an annual three percent increase in payment to the corporation. Several dozen opponents of the contract stood up and spoke, and Diaz expressed concern that current library employees might leave rather than work for LS&S and library services would suffer as a result. She compared the staff that LS&S would provide to substituting security guards for police officers.

Attorney Alan Geraci filed a suit in Vista Superior Court on behalf of the Garretts on November 28, contending that the city’s actions constitute a violation of the Municipal Libraries Act. The lawsuit asks that a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction be issued to stop the city from moving forward with the contract.

Epp termed the lawsuit “a silly issue,” according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. The plaintiffs are awaiting the city’s official response.

But as Ressler pointed out, even if the suit manages to stay the motion to privatize, the library—and the community—have suffered. “Unfortunately, even if we’re successful in negating that contract, several of our senior librarians have already resigned and found jobs elsewhere in the county. So in terms of the skill set and the experience that has been lost, we’ve already seen a negative impact.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

Share

Comments

  1. dan cawley says:

    attitudes/opinions about outsourcing aside, this is a court case worth watching. it has the potential to be a wake-up call for municipalities–some boards are actual governing bodies while others operate exclusively in an “advisory” capacity. should LS&S be awarded the contract, who, then, will watch the watchers?

  2. Charles Mung says:

    In terms of providing collections relevant to the communities the library is located, it’s important to look at the history of LSS principles in terms of litigation before and after LSS.
    Also, when looking at LSS directors/partners, one is a California Teacher Pension Fund, so no surprise that there are an equal number of California Libraries with LSS contracts as throughout the entire US.

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  4. Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media, per our Terms of Use.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind

*