Let library close branches St. Paul protest: Temporary restraining order doesn't mean plaintiffs are right.

September 01, 1997

AN IMPORTANT legal question has been raised in a suit that has temporarily thwarted plans to close the St. Paul Street branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Are the library's boards of directors and trustees public bodies or private entities? The answer, however, is not crucial to whether the St. Paul branch should be closed.

That decision was made administratively by library director Carla D. Hayden -- not the boards -- in response to a budget cut by the City Council and mayor. The city must have the authority to close its library branches, move personnel and make other budget decisions.

When the Pratt had its budget cut by the city, Ms. Hayden decided to close four branches: St. Paul Street and Morrell Park and two others to be named later. The Pratt should work with affected neighborhoods to ensure continued service and use of these buildings.

Still, the public should be concerned by the insistence of Pratt lawyers that library boards are not subject to the state open meetings law. Those boards gave approval to a master plan that calls for branch closings as well as construction of four regional super-branches.

Bringing that and other technological improvements to fruition will require voter approval of a bond issue. More than 90 percent of the Pratt budget comes from the city, state or federal government. It would be ludicrous to argue the library is a private institution whose boards should not submit to public scrutiny.

The Pratt master plan wasn't hatched in secrecy. Two years ago, the library conducted surveys and focus groups to prepare a draft that was discussed at public hearings. Specific branches weren't named, but the three-year plan approved in 1995 called for at least six to be replaced. Budget cuts have accelerated branch-closings, but that doesn't mean those decisions were misguided. The Pratt opens itself to such charges when it argues that its boards can do their work behind closed doors.

Pub Date: 9/01/97

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