February 16, 2018

Politician of the Year 2004: Dick Murphy

San Diego’s Library-Friendly Mayor

By John N. Berry III — Library Journal, 09/15/2004


“Building a 21st Century Library System for San Diego” was one of ten goals Mayor Dick Murphy issued when he took office in January 2001. The Mayor’s purpose was “to create a city worthy of our affection” by 2020. Libraries ranked right up there with strengthening police and fire protection, reducing traffic congestion, building affordable housing, establishing energy independence, cleaning up the pollution of the city’s beaches and bays, and even building a new baseball stadium. The rare combination of a mayor giving the city library system as high a priority as other crucial city services, articulating a long-term vision for the development of that plan, seeking allies to support it, and sticking with it even when it became a campaign issue attracted the attention of LJ‘s editors.

The San Diego Public Library System (SDPL) has been a significant feature of Murphy’s State of the City addresses every year. His 2004 edition captures the spirit and his deep commitment: “A good library enhances the quality of life of every single person in its community,” Murphy says toward the end of the speech. “It gives kids a clean and positive place to go. And it gives all people access to information and personal growth. That’s why my vision for San Diego includes a first-class library for everyone in every part of the city.”

According to the Mayor, people in San Diego love their local libraries. Rebuilding the main library had a bit less public support than new or renovated branches. San Diego’s $300 million library plan includes $150 million for a new main library and $150 million for branch libraries.

“We believe that a library system needs a heart, it needs a main library,” says Murphy. “When I came into office in January 2001 the library system was undersized and antiquated. That was true of many of our branch libraries and particularly of our main library, which is 50 years old, has no parking, has inadequate wiring to provide for all the computers we need, and not enough room to store the books. Our main library is really in sad shape.”

SDPL’s Murphy years

The library program began with his term, and it has made huge progress. On July 30, 2001, the Mayor and city council voted unanimously to transfer $1 million to a newly formed San Diego Public Library Foundation as seed money for fundraising efforts. The council reaffirmed a site for the new main library and moved forward with architectural plans.

A year later Murphy and the city council unanimously approved a $312.3 million program to build or improve 24 libraries throughout San Diego, the largest such program in the nation. A new standard was adopted for branch libraries. All new and expanded facilities will be a minimum of 15,000 square feet, and each of the eight city council districts will have at least one branch of 20,000 square feet or more.

During his first term, two new branch libraries, Mission Valley and Point Loma-Hervey, were opened, and the La Jolla-Riford branch was expanded. Early in 2004 ground was broken for new branches at the College-Rolando and the Otay Mesa–Nestor sites. This fall, groundbreaking is planned for two more branches.

The California Public Library Construction & Renovation Board has issued a grant of $5.35 million for a new Logan Heights Branch and $20 million for the new main library. In addition, San Diego was awarded $4 million to build preschool learning centers in four new libraries.

With crucial support from city council member Jim Madaffer, the Mayor’s partner on the library goal, the ambitious plan to improve San Diego’s library system has drawn support from nearly all San Diego elected officials. Madaffer not only championed the plan, he chaired a series of public workshops at the council’s Natural Resources and Culture Committee meetings to discuss the future of the city’s library system. Library experts like Chicago Public Library’s Mary Dempsey and American Library Association president-elect Michael Gorman, dean of library services at California State University in Fresno, presented overviews of library projects, and testimony was taken from the public.

A campaign issue

In the middle of a reelection effort, Murphy is ahead in the polls, but his opponent is a vigorous campaigner. Both are Republicans, since San Diego city elections are nonpartisan. The ambitious library program has some opposition and has become an issue.

“An economic recession has reduced our revenues. My opponent argues that libraries are not important, something we ought not to spend money on in challenging economic times. He’s saying they are too costly and not needed. I strongly disagree, of course,” the Mayor reports, adding, “this long-sought dream will be a major educational center that will benefit millions of adults and children for generations to come.”

Renewing the system

While the existing SDPL has served the city well for more than 100 years, Mayor Murphy believes, along with SDPL director Anna Tatar, that the libraries should be an integrated system anchored by a new main library to share resources and provide state-of-the-art technology and information services.

During the Murphy administration, the SDPL budget has increased 44.7%. Hours have been added, the materials budget has been substantially enhanced, and new branches have received strong operating budgets. The number of staff has grown by more than 16% during the same period, with positions added to operate the new and expanded branches and to provide additional public service systemwide.

The library has invested in seven times the original number of databases in four years and doubled funds for such purchases. The Gates Foundation funded one computer lab, and since then the three new branches have added new computer labs.The number of patrons using the Internet at the library has nearly tripled in four years.

These improvements have resulted in a circulation increase of 13.5 percent and a huge increase in library visits. Indeed, all library services from reference and children’s to programming and computers have vastly grown during the Murphy years.

Revenue: the library problem

“Revenue is the main problem for libraries,” Murphy explains to LJ. “Libraries are very popular. People understand their importance to our society. This is a creative, intellectual city, named by Richard Florida [in The Rise of the Creative Class, Perseus, 2002] as having the third most creative people in America. Libraries are understood and appreciated in our city.”

Library support comes from the local property tax, the local sales tax (San Diego gets one percent, which amounts to some $200 million, the state gets the rest), and a hotel tax, which generates over $100 million a year, all of which goes to the city.

This year the state took $17 million of the local property tax. A ballot proposition could stop the state from taking so much. Murphy believes local government provides the services that concern people the most. He mentions police and fire protection, parks, and, of course, libraries. Saying the state doesn’t provide any of them, Murphy concludes, “When they take that money from us, it is $17 million that we can’t spend on parks and libraries.”

This position inspired Tatar in her nomination: “I have been very impressed that [Murphy] has made such a strong commitment to libraries even as the state has taken its toll on cities and counties in California.”

Education, library roots

A lawyer and judge for many years, Murphy attended Stanford Law School on the GI Bill. He practiced for only five or six years, then served on the San Diego City Council. As a judge in the San Diego Superior Court he presided over 25 homicide cases, including a couple of death penalty cases, and some civil cases. “I consider myself a moderate Republican,” he said, “but on the bench I was considered a law-and-order conservative.”

His mother was a schoolteacher, and his father, a school principal, chaired the library board in the little suburban town of Broadview, IL. The library and books were an important part of the family’s life.

Because of his vision, his commitment to libraries, his conviction that they are as important as other city services, and for having the fortitude to execute the library plan, San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy is LJ‘s choice for 2004 Politician of the Year.

John N. Berry III is Editor-in-Chief, LJ