April 20, 2018

Politicians of the Year 2005: Frank DiCicco & Michael Nutter-The Rescuers

City Councilors Frank DiCicco and Michael Nutter reverse a library budget cut and save service in Philadelphia’s branches

By John N. Berry III — Library Journal, 09/15/2005

It has been a rough, roller coaster year at the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP). Philadelphia City Councilmen Michael Nutter and Frank DiCicco used confrontation and classic urban political strategies to help rescue library branches and their librarians, restoring relatively normal operations to the system. The result: 2005 will be much better for the library and librarians than was expected. Nutter and DiCicco had differing views, approaches, and styles, but together they reversed the cuts for 2005 and most likely the future outlook for the FLP.

The budget cut

The FLP budget was nearly $2 million short when it was delivered to Elliot L. Shelkrot, FLP’s president and director. Appointed by and serving at the pleasure of a board, Shelkrot was caught in the crossfire of political rivals, with a nasty budget cut. All his options were onerous. He could risk his job and career by openly opposing the action. He could even threaten to resign, as Nutter believed he should and even urged him several times to do. If that didn’t cost Shelkrot his job, it would incur the permanent wrath of both his board and Mayor John F. Street.

“Our choice was quite simple. We were told, ‘These staff are gone, this is your budget. Deal with it.’ Rather than close libraries, we decided to move 20 libraries to a half-time schedule to keep them open,” says Shelkrot. “Once you close a library, it is very hard to open it again.” Keep the libraries open, even half the time, and when things turn around you can rebuild the staff and branches, Shelkrot believed. His board agreed.

The DiCicco strategy

DiCicco classifies the FLP as one of the city departments “most crucial to the public welfare,” along with recreation, fire, and police. In 2004, DiCicco supported a bill to allow the city to borrow $30 million toward the renovation of the FLP central library. The money would be part of a $100 million expansion supported by every city leader. The library was considered a key component in the renewal of the cultural area surrounding the nearby Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and the great old building was in dire need of repair.

DiCicco says he asked Shelkrot if the project would have any impact on branch libraries. “While I thought the central library should be expanded, I have constituents who use the neighborhood branches and I didn’t want service curtailed there. Lo and behold, when the budget came out there were cuts,” DiCicco reports.

“Permanent librarians were being laid off, hours were being curtailed,” says DiCicco. “I decided to act.” He introduced a bill to repeal the $30 million loan for central library renovations, getting enough support from councilors for the city to revisit the FLP operating budget cuts.

It was a high-risk strategy. DiCicco was really behind the central library program and was worried that he wouldn’t get the 12 out of 17 council votes needed to override a veto by the mayor. DiCicco pressured the seven at-large councilors elected citywide, figuring he could get five of the ten who represent specific districts to go along. In the end, he achieved a nearly unanimous vote.

“The council had to make a choice,” says DiCicco. “Keep neighborhood branch libraries open first. The central library would be a world-class library, but many people from my district many miles away from Center City have probably never visited the central library. It doesn’t mean anything to them.

“I understand the economic importance of the central library. What has meaning for my constituents is to walk three to six blocks from their home and that library is there,” DiCicco concludes. “They’re not going to come downtown to the central library. The branch is a safe haven for kids after school.”

After much public pressure, including council hearings and rallies organized by the Friends of the Library, the mayor came around, the money was restored, and the libraries will be fully funded. DiCicco withdrew the bill to repeal the $30 million, as he had promised.

“He’s appointed, I’m elected. I’m sure he has to do things he doesn’t want to do,” said DiCicco, empathetic to Shelkrot. “I respect that. He was given a budget, and the only way he could make that budget work…was to make cuts. I understand the [mayoral] administration’s position. Still, I hope we won’t have to go through this again for two or three years. I don’t want to count my chickens early, but I think the library budget is safe.”

Nutter counterattacks

“I’ve always had a great passion for libraries, and I’ve seen what they can do for young and old folks alike—those who may not have access to their own research materials,” says Nutter. “I’ve seen the explosive use of the Internet in library branches. I’ve also seen the value of the librarians. The information, the guidance, and the support they provide to people in the library is incredible.

“I grew up in the public library branch in West Philly where I lived. You don’t have to be a genius to see what would have happened if we changed to these ‘express libraries’ with no librarians,” Nutter continues. “A branch library would be just a room with books. That is not a library. Many of us took it very personally that such an idea would even come forward.”

Nutter was impressed with and grateful for the support from citizens, especially the Friends. He attended protest rallies in February, and at one “Love Your Library” gathering he led the crowd in the chant, “Bring Them Back!” Later he held a hearing on the library budget and electrified the audience with a speech that ended, “Sometimes you just have to say this is wrong. It is not good enough….” “The process was quite exciting on a certain level,” says Nutter. “It was sad that we had to go through it all. There are many critical services in the government…. I think of libraries, recreation centers, and parks as the happy services. [They] are just as important as our public health and safety services….

“The proposal just seemed to be another attack,” Nutter says. “Last year it was the recreation centers, this year the libraries. Who knew what it would be next.

“I think, as director of the free library system, Shelkrot should have said ‘No!”’ Nutter states. “You reach a certain point where you say, ‘I’m not doing that! If you want someone to do this to the library system that I love, find somebody else. I will not implement that kind of drastic cut…. I will leave and I will tell the public why!'”

Now Nutter is thinking about standards for what constitutes a good library, what are its components: the personnel levels, books, materials, and services that ought to be there. He wants conversations in Philadelphia about how libraries are supported—whether it’s city resources or public/private partnerships—and how libraries can raise additional revenue without being overly commercial.

The library wins!

Library director Shelkrot observes, “Both of these councilmen are great supporters of the library. So is Mayor John Street. In hindsight, getting the money restored was a possibility. We know now that the people wouldn’t have put up with the cuts. I am very pleased that Councilmen DiCicco and Nutter took the leadership and brought the issue to the mayor, so that the mayor and the council could agree on a very positive solution.”

In a memo to the staff, Shelkrot outlined the results of the effort started by DiCicco and Nutter and the schedule for restoring library service in the branches. Some 80 staff will be hired or rehired, half of them librarians. Some 15 library trainees will also be hired. Eligible part-time library assistants will be promoted to full time. The goal is to have all branch hours restored by early October, with a first priority to open three closed branches, then to restore ten afternoon branches to full service with a library supervisor, a librarian, a full-time municipal guard, and sufficient complements of library assistants.

Nutter and DiCicco should be proud of what they have done for the citizens of Philadelphia. Selecting them as the 2005 Politicians of the Year, the editors at LJ offer one model of effective political action for libraries.


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