Library closings disputed in court

Restraining order rejected

5 branches set to shut today

September 01, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore circuit judge turned aside yesterday a last-minute request to halt today's scheduled closing of five branches of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Judge Thomas E. Noel rejected arguments by activists that the planned closings warranted emergency action by the court, and raised questions about the arguments made in their case, which will be heard later.

"I'm not minimizing the seriousness of the closings," Noel said in refusing the temporary restraining order.

David B. Goldstein, a lawyer for the activists -- among them, members of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now -- argued that the library's board of trustees lacked the legal authority to approve the closings because some of its members do not live in the city.

The trustees' residency has become an issue since a legally nonbinding letter of opinion was issued last month by the Maryland attorney general's office. In the letter, Assistant Attorney General Richard E. Israel said that state law requires the Pratt's trustees to be residents of Baltimore.

Yesterday's challenge hinges on that opinion.

Marta D. Harting, a lawyer representing the Pratt Library, said, "We respectfully disagree with the attorney general."

In ruling against the petition, Noel pointed to an inconsistency he saw in the activists' argument: that the board was not involved in the closings.

Library officials, not the board, chose which of the 26 branches to close. Noting budgetary reasons, they said July 18 that the Gardenville, Hollins-Payson, Dundalk, Pimlico and Fells Point branches would close after Sept. 1.

Library Director Carla Hayden was in the courthouse yesterday, but did not attend the hearing. In an interview, Hayden repeated that she alone made the final call on which branches would close. She said again that she reached the decision without consulting board members and that there was no vote to ratify her choices.

Goldstein questioned the absence of oversight by the board of trustees: "They can't hide behind Carla Hayden."

The board, which meets once a year, has 33 members, five of whom moved from the city after they were appointed, Hayden said.

The board of directors, a separate panel that meets four times a year, is more active in the Pratt's governance, but does not hold the ultimate management and financial responsibility reserved for the trustees. Fifteen of the directors also serve as trustees.

The structure of Pratt governance stems from the 1882 charter, which, Hayden said, was designed by philanthropist Enoch Pratt to keep the library insulated from politics and religion. As director, she is selected by and accountable to the board of trustees, not the Baltimore mayor or City Council.

Goldstein and ACORN leaders said they would continue to press the lawsuit against the library.

Harting maintains that the original charter -- which requires trustees to be city residents when they are appointed, but allows them to change residence within the state -- still holds.

The case will turn on those library bylaws or a 1978 state law requiring that library representatives to live in the area they serve.

One named plaintiff, Ruth Rogers, 65, takes her two great-grandchildren to the Pimlico branch on Park Heights Avenue near her home. Closing her neighborhood library would cause problems for her, she said, because she has no car and would have to take a bus to the next nearest branch.

Deborah Taylor, another named plaintiff, said yesterday, "Libraries are important social vehicles for the fabric of the neighborhood."

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