Clashes likely over city libraries

Pratt leaders to face two state Senate bills, community lawsuit

Critics want overhaul of charter

Legislation also seeks to keep 21 branches open

February 24, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Two state Senate bills and a pending lawsuit against the Enoch Pratt Free Library are setting the scene for more clashes between the city library leadership and community activists.

One bill would overhaul the library's original charter, which dates to the 1880s and calls for the board of trustees to appoint its members. The other bill would require the Pratt to maintain the current number of neighborhood branches - 21 - to avoid the pain caused when five branches closed in the summer of 2001.

A lawsuit filed by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now will come up for trial in Baltimore Circuit Court next month. It arose as a result of those closures, and it challenges the validity of the private selection of trustees.

During a State House hearing in Annapolis on Friday, Carla D. Hayden, the Pratt's director, defended the library's system of self-governance, which has come under scrutiny and criticism since the closures.

"This is not a governance problem," Hayden said after the hearing before the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. "It's a fiscal problem. This is getting to the root of the problem, why people are frustrated."

Hayden said she opposed the bill introduced by state Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, a Baltimore Democrat, which would eliminate what officials call the "self-perpetuating" library trustees board and replace it with a political appointee system.

But Hayden said she would work with another Baltimore Democrat, state Sen. George W. Della, to make viable his bill to require 21 branches to stay open. J. Tyson Tildon, president of the Pratt's board of trustees, joined her in appearing before the committee.

Critics have said repeatedly over the past five years that a public institution that has a $28.5 million budget and is funded by the city and state should not have a privately appointed board of trustees.

Critics also have complained that some who serve on the library's boards do not live in Baltimore, which they say makes them far removed from the city's neighborhood branches.

The Hughes bill and the lawsuit are related, with ACORN named as the plaintiff in the lawsuit and acting as the chief catalyst in the proposed legislation.

Leaders of ACORN told lawmakers that library officials had been unresponsive for many months.

C.D. Witherspoon, state political director of ACORN, said the Hughes bill is far-reaching and designed so that each City Council member and state senator would appoint a library board member from his or her district.

"This will increase community-based representation," Witherspoon said, "for minority and low-income neighborhoods."

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