Pratt board focus of bill

Geographic diversity, term limits sought for library trustees

`We were taken aback'

Group challenging branch closings in fall pressed for legislation

February 25, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

State Sen. Ralph M. Hughes has introduced a bill that would radically restructure the leadership of the Enoch Pratt Free Library with the aim of creating more diversity among its board of trustees.

"Basically, people on the [library] board serve life terms," Hughes, a West Baltimore Democrat, said in an interview last week, adding that he would like to require term limits and geographical representation on the panel.

Hughes said he agreed to draft Senate Bill 840 at the request of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, which has a suit pending against the library over the closing of five branches in September.

The bill calls for creating an outside nominating committee to appoint the members of the Pratt board of trustees. The bill also would require that each councilmanic district have a representative on the board and that all board members be city residents.

One of the closed branches, Pimlico, is in Hughes' 40th District.

Mona M. Rock, a Pratt spokeswoman, said library Director Carla D. Hayden plans to meet with Hughes today to discuss the bill. "We were taken aback, and had no idea it was coming," Rock said.

She said Hayden had no comment on the measure, which was introduced as Pratt officials prepared last week to meet ACORN advocates in court. The hearing for ACORN's lawsuit, scheduled for Thursday, has been postponed until March 15.

Judge Kaye A. Allison recused herself from hearing a library motion to dismiss the case because of an undisclosed conflict of interest, city Circuit Court officials said. The lawsuit contests the legality of the Pratt library closing the five branches and aims to have them reinstated.

Delays in the library lawsuit - filed days before the Sept. 1 closings of neighborhood branches in Dundalk, Fells Point, Gardenville, Hollins-Payson and Pimlico - led ACORN to Annapolis, said Mitchell S. Klein, ACORN's head organizer.

Klein and others approached Hughes with a proposal to write a bill that would change the governance of the Pratt board, an institution that dates from the 1880s.

Hughes is the bill's only sponsor, suggesting it has not gained the political support of the Baltimore delegation in the State House. Mayor Martin O'Malley does not support the Hughes bill, said O'Malley spokesman Tony White.

Hughes said he does not know how much support the legislation has. Because it was introduced late in the session, it has not been assigned to a committee. He said he expects opposition.

At the heart of the legal and legislative challenges are the residency rules for trustees, many of whom in the past lived outside the city. After the lawsuit was filed, all trustees living outside the city voluntarily resigned in the fall.

The board of trustees has a nominating committee, which considers and recommends prospective members, but Pratt attorney Marta D. Harting of Piper Marbury Rudnick & Wolfe LLP said at least one of ACORN's legal claims is now moot. "[The trustees] all live in the city, and they changed the bylaws in the fall [to require city residency]. So our argument is: [ACORN doesn't] have a claim."

David Goldstein, a lawyer representing ACORN, has challenged closing the branches and requested that the city reopen them, arguing that the board did not have the proper authority because it was not representative of the city it served and that it surrendered its responsibility to Hayden, who decided which branches to close without consulting the trustees.

Klein said ACORN favors the creation of a community-based board.

"We shouldn't have county people running city libraries," said ACORN member Willie E. Ray, who lives near the closed Pimlico branch.

The Pimlico and Gardenville library buildings are being used as Head Start facilities. The Dundalk site is designated for internal library uses, the Hollins-Payson building is being used by a Girl Scout troop, and the Fells Point branch is the home for Education-Based Latino Outreach, Rock said.

Whether reopening the buildings as library branches is a realistic remedy is a matter that has not been directly addressed in the lawsuit. "It's realistic for them to rehab them and make them decent. It's a matter of public will," Klein said.

Sun staff writer Ivan Penn contributed to this article.

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