Judge rules Pratt can close St. Paul branch Residents' lawsuit had delayed closing

September 17, 1997|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore circuit judge ruled last night that Enoch Pratt Free Library may proceed with the controversial closing of the century-old branch on St. Paul Street in Charles Village.

Pratt officials said last night that they would announce the effective closing date of the branch today.

With the decision, Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan rejected an appeal of the Friends of the St. Paul Street branch and declared that library management has a right to decide the closing of a branch without public participation. But the judge also broke new legal ground by stating that the library board must comply with the state open meeting law, counter to its claims in court.

At the end of eight hours of charged testimony yesterday, Kaplan ordered library officials to preserve some kind of link to the gingerbread-style brick library branch at 2521 St. Paul St.

"The library is directed to work with the community to find an alternative use for this facility which involves an Enoch Pratt presence," he said.

A groundswell of community protest, followed quickly by a lawsuit, greeted the Pratt's Aug. 5 announcement that it would close the branch Aug. 30.

Library officials explained that closing two branches in Charles Village and Morrell Park was a cost-cutting measure caused by nearly $1 million budget shortfall.

At the heart of the legal challenge, said Sharon Guida, the lawyer representing the Charles Village group, was the public's "right to know."

"This library board is making decisions that affect the public" in private, she said. "Decisions were made in a way that were not in compliance with the Open Meetings Act."

At stake from the library's point of view, said board chair Virginia Adams, was "the right of Pratt management to manage the facilities of the entire system within the bounds of available funds in the best interests of all."

Adams and the Pratt's deputy director, James C. Welbourne, were the two library witnesses who testified in court. Library Director Carla D. Hayden was present, but did not testify.

After the decision was handed down, Adams said, "That's fine. We're very pleased."

Hayden said, "We had differing opinions on the decision-making process. It's not a happy day, but the people of the city can feel confident about the library management team."

On the other side of the courtroom, the decision was taken as a partial victory because the Pratt must comply with the open meetings statute. But there was disappointment that the community lost its effort to keep the library branch open.

"We have something to take with us," said Guida, referring to Kaplan's finding that the Pratt board must comply with the open meetings law.

The judge pointed out that all the library buildings are owned by the city and that more than 90 percent of the library's $20 million operating budget comes from public funds. But while he ruled that the board must meet in public, he also found that the decision to close the library branches was made by Hayden and Welbourne in July and August.

"It was strictly a staff senior management decision, which is not subject to the open meetings law," said Kaplan.

Testifying on behalf of the Charles Village community group were library activists Judith Hart-McLean, Jane Shipley and David Yaffe, who all said they had not been kept informed of library intentions despite repeated inquiries over nine months.

Pub Date: 9/17/97

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