Lawsuit against Pratt library headed to trial

Case hinges on legality of closing 5 branches

April 11, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore City judge gave a green light yesterday to a lawsuit challenging the self-governing board of the 120-year-old Enoch Pratt Free Library.

"This should move on to a trial level. You both need declaratory judgment," Circuit Judge Thomas E. Noel told lawyers for Pratt and the plaintiff, Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), as he denied a Pratt motion to dismiss the case outright.

Noel heard arguments for nearly an hour before reaching his decision. A fall trial date is likely, attorneys said.

"We're disappointed the case isn't over," Marta D. Harting of Piper Rudnick LLP said yesterday. Harting is representing Pratt in this case. "The board of trustees made a policy decision that makes this lawsuit moot."

In October, the Pratt board of trustees voted to require all its members to live in Baltimore City. Seven members who live outside the city left the board last fall. Now, about 25 members each serve indefinitely.

The lawsuit -- sparked by Pratt Director Carla D. Hayden's decision to close five neighborhood branches last summer -- challenges the board of trustees' authority, composition and system of self-selection.

Harting said the board ratified the closures, though it did not make the final choices. ACORN has said that at the time of decision-making on the closures, which happened Sept. 1, not all trustees were city dwellers. The lawsuit does not request reopening the closed branches.

Harting said in court that since Enoch Pratt founded the library system in 1882, the library's governing board has chosen its own members. Pratt's original charter was meant to shield the library system from political influence and corruption.

David B. Goldstein, ACORN'S lawyer, argued that Pratt's board of trustees violates the state's Library Act, which requires a library board to reside in and be representative of the area it serves.

"They're taking the [public] money," Goldstein said in a post-hearing interview, noting the Pratt's $27 million annual budget is almost all city and state funding. Further, he said, most of the trustees live in affluent pockets of North Baltimore, far from the shuttered library branches in Pimlico, Hollins-Payson, Gardenville, Dundalk Avenue and Fells Point.

Goldstein described the board of trustees, which meets once a year, as a "dysfunctional, do-nothing, rubber-stamp board," which, he said, does not properly oversee the director's decisions.

He said other library branches are at stake, vulnerable to closure if Hayden's plan to build large regional libraries is carried out.

The director has closed seven branches since 1997. The system has 21 branches citywide.

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