Watchdog criticizes library oversight

05/09/2013

In its first report on libraries in more than a decade, the county’s independent watchdog said the financially strapped Marin County Free Library must develop clearer plans of how to fund its operations and do a better job consulting with its employees and the public about how it spends taxpayer money.

The civil grand jury also found that the library’s auxiliary groups, the Library Commission and the Library Foundation, were not adequately meeting their respective responsibilities, overseeing library administration and creating long-term financing for the 10-branch library, which has outposts in Stinson Beach, Bolinas, Inverness and Point Reyes.

Members of the citizen’s commission met at the Inverness Library on Wednesday after press time, at a regularly scheduled meeting, to discuss the findings.

Library administrators, meanwhile, offered a lukewarm response to the report, with the county department’s interim director saying that the library “welcomes an outside body reviewing our operations” but that a number of the findings and recommendations were based on “insufficient information.”

“There’s still a lot to digest,” said Scott Bauer, the library’s acting director, of the report, which was initially expected next month. “A lot of the findings and recommendations are spot on and ones that in our response to the grand jury we will try to address. There’s a few in there that are partially right and partially not so right.”

News of the grand jury’s inquiry into employee morale and oversight, the first public independent examination since 2002, was first reported by the Light in March. The director at the time, Gail Haar, left the library after responding to declining revenues by leading an ongoing reorganization and remodeling plan that angered some employees who complained that neither they nor the public were consulted about the changes; insiders also pointed to an increasing workload and reliance on staff without librarian’s credentials or full-time appointments. According to the report, employees broadly feel “uninformed” about administration decisions and some have worked without benefits or job security for seven years in temporary “extra-hire” positions.

The library has acknowledged declining morale and said they are making changes to improve communications.

Ms. Haar’s replacement, Sara Jones, will take office this summer after emerging as the finalist in a national search. Ms. Jones was previously the director of the smaller library system in Nevada’s state capital. Mr. Bauer said the report will assist Ms. Jones’ efforts by outlining some of the issues she will confront.

The library has sustained funding in part due to voters, who overwhelmingly approved Measure A in 2010. The five-year, $49-a-parcel property tax was promoted as a way to prevent branch closures, hour reductions and program cuts in light of decreasing financial support from the state during the recession. West Marin was particularly supportive of the ballot measure, with more than four out of five voters supporting the measure in at least seven local polling places.

Library officials have acknowledged that they will need to renew the measure, which provides some $2.5 million annually, in order to sustain their popular services, which include buses that provide literacy training, research and job-search advice, digital media, movies and special children’s programming—not to mention books.

But the report said the oversight of Measure A spending and long-term financing plans are wanting. While it offers praise for employees and Friends of the Library, a group of volunteers who support and fundraise for the libraries, the grand jury said they “did not find evidence to show the Library Foundation is meeting its stated mission or goals, and based on the 2002 Grand Jury report, the Library Foundation also was not meeting its goals in 2002.”

The report noted that the foundation and friends group sent donors a request for funds at the same time, “possibly diluting the impact of the request,” and suggested that the foundation consider merging with the friends group. The co-chairs of the foundation could not be reached or declined to comment on the report.

Meanwhile the report found the Library Commission, which was impaneled as the advisory committee required by Measure A, did not have any role in budget preparation, was “not empowered to recommend solutions to the many long-lasting problems” and “had virtually no discussion or dialogue on substantive issues.” The report noted that seats on the commission, including in West Marin’s district four, had been left vacant for several months.

“Presentations were made to the Library Commission, but Commissioners gave no feedback, offered no opinions, and had no open discussions of issues,” the report concluded. “Interviews with several Commissioners revealed that some had never met with the Supervisor who had appointed them, and most had little or no direct communication with their Supervisor.”

Mr. Bauer, the library director, said in his experience the commissioners have been very engaged and ask questions frequently, but added that he would like to see the vacancies filled. Supervisor Steve Kinsey said he has advertised the vacancies on multiple occasions but that no one has stepped forward, and said he has met with his appointees, “but not with any regularity.” The commissioners could not be reached for comment, but some of the critiques in the grand jury report were echoed by an outgoing commissioner, Cal Kurzman, in a letter sent to the commission in April.

Mr. Kurzman wrote that the commission’s oversight committee has not “been receiving the basic information it requires in order to assure the voters of Marin County that their tax dollars are being effectively spent,” noting that Measure A funds have been used to hire a human-resources specialist and for recent cost overruns on remodeling. “The concern is that the Oversight Committee was left completely out of the loop,” Mr. Kurzman wrote. “The Library Commission, to my knowledge, has convened in its role as the Oversight Committee only three times.” He noted that those meetings, one that took place in 2011 and two in 2012, lasted for a total of 85 minutes. On several occasions, commission meetings lacked a quorum.

As part of its Measure A work, the library is undertaking large-scale remodeling of some of its branches and more ad hoc refurbishments to West Marin branches, including disabled-accessibility upgrades in Inverness. Branches are also consolidating services at a single desk, one of several efficiency measures introduced to improve the library.

Mr. Bauer acknowledges that there have been some unexpected cost overruns in the remodelling project. The library is projected to spend $16 million this fiscal year, which ends in June, and staff say they are dealing with more patrons and greater demands in the digital age. The grand jury said those expenditures should be more comprehensively and clearly laid out for the public, a recommendation that Mr. Bauer said would be considered.