February 16, 2018

Nebraska Bill Could Make All Libraries City Departments


Nebraska Library Commission
Photo Credit: Librarian Allana Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

A bill that would place every library in Nebraska under the direct control of its city rather than a board of trustees is likely to be considered by that state’s legislature this winter, state senator Tyson Larson (R-40) told LJ. Such a bill, if passed and signed into law, would give municipalities of every size the power to manage library budgets, set hours, and hire and fire directors.

Larson cautioned that his bill remains a work in progress. It won’t be introduced until after Nebraska’s unicameral legislature reconvenes in January. But he hinted strongly that he favored a sweeping change in the existing statute. Most Nebraska libraries are currently run by an independent board of appointed trustees. Larson’s law could reduce them to a purely advisory role.

Asked if he thought such a bill would be passed by Nebraska’s single-chamber (and non-partisan) legislature, Larson said, “I do. I think there’ll be a little pushback from some individual senators.”

Roots in Omaha

Omaha, Nebraska’s largest city, has recently seen sparring between Mayor Jean Stothert and the library board. As reported in the local press, the mayor wants direct control of the library budget and other management decisions, insisting it is the only way to guarantee responsible spending. (Stothert could not be reached for comment).

Larson told LJ that testimony from Stothert’s chief of staff, Marty Bilek, and subsequent conversations with the Omaha mayor helped convince him that the wisest course was probably an all-encompassing bill that basically transforms libraries into city departments. The testimony took place during a day of testimony before the General Affairs Committee on September 25 in Lincoln, as part of Larson’s legislative study on the statewide role of library boards.

However, Larson admitted his bill could steer well beyond the stated purpose of his legislative study, known as LR288. The original plan was to explore whether Nebraska’s smallest communities—so-called “second-class” cities—should have a choice whether library boards wielded governing or advisory control.

Nebraska’s 530 cities and villages are classified by population size. The state’s 381 villages have between 100 and 800 residents, while second-class cities boast a population between 800 and 5,000 people. First-class cities have between 5,000 and 100,000 residents, which leaves Lincoln (primary class) and Omaha (metropolitan class) alone in their respective upper tiers.

The library board has governing authority in both Omaha and Lincoln. But while Omaha’s mayor wants legislation to limit the power wielded by trustees, Lincoln city officials are on record as happy to continue having their library administered by a seven-member board.

“The relationship between the Lincoln City Libraries library board and the mayor has been strong and productive over the years, and this is valued by both parties,” Rick Hoppe, chief of staff for mayor Chris Beutler, said in a statement to LJ. “We have an understanding that one of the critical responsibilities of an administrative library board is protection of intellectual freedom.”

The case for cities

Municipal control means a mayor or council can hire the library director, set staffing levels and determine branch hours. Library officials in many cities, Blair Public Library director Gayle Roberts said, want trustees making those decisions. Nebraska libraries, no matter how big or small, get the vast majority of their annual operating budget from municipalities. Stothert has been one high-profile example of a city executive who wonders why a city writes the checks then sit backs while others (none of whom are elected) shape the library’s culture.

On Oct. 14, the mayor told Omaha,com, “You can’t have a nonelected group of people who are appointed by the mayor managing taxpayer dollars. It’s the mayor that’s responsible for the taxpayer dollars.”

Roberts said her concerns extend beyond a fear over possible censorship. She wants privacy issues involving both patrons and library employees to be protected under any revisions to the statute, and worries that “core ethics” are in danger when cities have ultimate control.

Liability is another issue. Cities, not libraries, are on the financial hook for any legal judgments stemming from potential on-site mishaps or negligence at branches. As L. Lynn Rex, executive director of the League of Nebraska Municipalities (LONM), told LJ, it can be potentially risky for cities to rely solely on trustees to maintain proper library workplace safety and standards. “The liability issue is huge,” she said.

Issues pertaining to human resources were also raised at the committee hearing. The mayor of O’Neill, NE, wrote a letter to the committee mentioning a case where the library director had disciplinary issues that could have led to termination. But the director was left in his post by the library board, which had jurisdiction on the matter.

Choosing city control

There are only 30 first-class cities in Nebraska, and 12 of them have already opted to limit the role (and power) of their library trustees under the existing statute. A small sampling of those library officials contacted by LJ reported no problems with that arrangement.

Cecelia Lawrence, director of the single-branch North Platte Public Library that serves about 35,000 residents, presides over a system that years ago shifted to direct city control. “In North Platte it works incredibly well,” she said. “I’ve never felt hindered. I’ve never felt like my hands are tied. Am I frustrated when my budget gets cut? Of course I am.”

North Platte’s 12-member advisory board works on short- and long-range planning initiatives, identifies budget priorities and makes recommendations to the city council. “Each board member represents different facets of the community,” said Lawrence. “All these different voices are invaluable to me.”

Grand Island Public Library also migrated to direct municipal control, and director Steve Fosselman said the relationship works smoothly. “The library is a partner with the city,” he added. “It’s a matter of community right now rather than a power struggle.”

The Blair Public Library also operates with an advisory board, and Roberts likes how the system operates. “I do not believe my city council wants to hire my part-time assistant,” she said. “At the same time, I really don’t care what my heating bill is.”

In Nebraska, Nebraska Library Commission Director Rod Wagner said, state law allows for elected library trustees, but there are currently no cities that use that system.

Organizational support—and opposition

Any statewide law that would strip library trustees of final governing power would have the support of the LONM. “This is not about trying to diminish the role of libraries in the community,” said Rex. “We’re not talking about censorship. This is not about telling libraries what kind of books to buy, or telling people what kind of books to take.”

Roberts, who recently completed a term as president of the Nebraska Library Association, told LJ NLA would not support such a far-reaching bill. “We want to protect the rights of our patrons,” said Roberts, the last person to offer testimony at the Sept. 25 session. She offered the NLA’s expertise in helping draft Larson’s bill, which Roberts hoped would be structured to protect library “core values.”

“We believe in being accountable,” Roberts said. “No one wants to be at odds with anybody.”

Roberts and Rex agreed on one point: Larson’s bill could be crafted to include safeguards against censorship or placing some limits on how much say cities would have regarding day-to-day operations of libraries. The state senator also said he was amenable to language that would alleviate various concerns in the library community.

NLC’s Wagner said he preferred to read the legislation before taking a public position, but was also wary of the senator’s plan.