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Mobtown Beat

Stacks Against Them

Acorn Takes Enoch Pratt Free Library to Court for Closing Five Branches in 2001

By Jamil Roberts | Posted 5/28/2003

The ghost of library closings past continues to haunt some Baltimoreans, even two years after five neighborhood branches of the Enoch Pratt Free Library were shut down by library board members. In reaction to the 2001 closings of the Dundalk, Fells Point, Gardenville, Hollins-Payson, and Pimlico branches, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) will be going to trial in August with a lawsuit against the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

ACORN is trying to force a change in the composition of the library's boards of trustees and directors and to reopen the library system's closed branches. The group says that the board of directors did not have the authority to close those branches in the first place because, according to local ACORN members, it is an unaccountable and self-perpetuating board that is not economically, geographically, or racially representative of Baltimore City.

In total, there are 33 members of the boards of directors and trustees. The board of trustees has 24 members, all of whom are city residents that serve until resignation or death. There are 23 members of the board of directors, 14 of whom are also trustees, and the board of trustees appoints both the trustees and directors. Of the 33 directors and trustees, only seven are black. ACORN's members say this system has not served the library well; the organization wants a more diverse library board, with term limits, appointed by city officials.

Mona Rock, the Pratt library's director of communications, says the board's composition is justified because it is in accordance with library founder Enoch Pratt's 1882 charter, which gives the board of trustees the sole power to choose and remove its members. She says that Pratt wanted the board to be self-perpetuating, so as to avoid political and religious influence in library affairs. ACORN's members say the rules that govern the library's structure are outdated and prevent the public from influencing decisions about how the library is run. "The library's board has not been able to diversify, and the rules that govern it have been written in a way that excludes public comment," says Mitch Klein, head organizer of Maryland ACORN.

Although not connected to the lawsuit, David Yaffe, a member of Friends of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, supports the suit and has been observing library issues in Baltimore for more than a decade. He has been an outspoken critic of the Pratt's board, and he questions those who are charged with keeping the library system running. "How is it that the board of a public agency, funded by public dollars, is not ultimately accountable to the public?" Yaffe asks.

According to the Pratt by-laws, the trustees "bear ultimate responsibility for the control and management of the Library." Rock says the library is a quasi-public agency, since its funding comes from a combination of city, state, and private sources. She says the library encourages public input through patron comment cards, located in every branch, and in open board meetings held four times a year.

Yaffe says that the board meetings are not held often enough and that the public is allowed to comment on decisions only after action has been taken, the meeting has been adjourned, and many of the board members have already left. Rock admits that the opportunity for public comment, "as in other nonprofit organizations," has routinely been held at the end of meetings.

But as a result, Yaffe says, Pratt patrons have less influence in library decisions in comparison to patrons of other public-library systems, such as the Baltimore County Library. The county library system holds meetings once a month and accepts public comments during the meetings.

"A lot of them [Pratt board members] are members of private corporations and have developed habits in the private sector that don't work for a public agency," Yaffe says. "They keep things secret and don't trust the public."

He also says that the board of directors, members of which are not bound to city residency as are trustees, was created illegitimately and should not exist. Yaffe says the Pratt board of directors was created when the library received a matching challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in the mid-1980s. At the time, he says, the board's primary function was to raise funds for the NEH grant, but at some point the board of trustees transferred many of its powers and responsibilities to the board of directors, making it the board of control. He believes that, rather than creating a board of directors, the library should have established a fund-raising committee, and that the trustees should never have given the responsibility of running the library to the well-connected directors.

Rock refutes Yaffe's claims. She says that the board of directors is not the board of control, though it was created around the same time the library received the NEH grant. She says its real purpose was to "increase the representation of state residents" outside of Baltimore City because of the main branch's dual role as the State Library Resource Center. Rock says the board of directors advises library director Carla Hayden, recommends business partnerships, and assists in fund-raising. However, she says, despite what critics of the library may think, the Pratt does not rely on funds attained through the board members' personal and business connections.

Jackie Watts, president of Friends of the Enoch Pratt Free Library (and editor of the Baltimore Guide newspaper), disagrees with fellow Friends member Yaffe and ACORN. She believes that ACORN is going about changing the library in the wrong way. "You don't try to tear the system down because it's not working right now," Watts says. "You do what you can to change it and you do what you can to help it change."

She believes that policy decisions made by the city government have had more of an impact on the state of the library than the boards that control it. "The mayor and City Council have been very shortsighted in the cutting of funds," Watts says. In fiscal year 2002, the library's total budget was $31,454,000; the city contributed more than $12 million (38 percent) of the total figure. Watts says that cuts to the city budget's General Fund have historically gone to the library and parks and recreation spending because, unlike with school budgets, law does not mandate increases in their yearly funding. She also says that hiring freezes have had near-crippling effects on the Pratt's operation.

Consistent underfunding over a period of several years has forced the library to make some very difficult decisions, Rock says. The library had to close branches, limit its hours of operation, and limit its book budget as a result. When asked why cities similar in size to Baltimore have better library systems, she said that many cities have a mayor and community organizations committed to helping provide a better system. Caprece Jackson-Garrett, spokeswoman for City Council President Sheila Dixon, says the city has not cut the library budget this year. She notes that usage of the Pratt is down and that is "still a concern." She also says that "budget woes continue" not just for the library system, but for the whole city.

Berdina Reynolds, a city resident and ACORN member, says all parties involved should be doing more to improve the library.

"The city will come up with money to fund anything downtown and the Inner Harbor, but they can never find enough money for the libraries and recreation centers in the neighborhoods," she says. Reynolds says she believes that the poor of Baltimore are being conspired against. "They don't want our children to learn," she adds, noting that it appears that seemingly endless amounts of taxpayer dollars are spent on police, prisons, and juvenile detention centers, while schools, libraries, and other services in poor areas are closing. She says she sees the current situation as a perpetuation of the status quo that seeks to limit the number of minorities in the competitive job market.

David Yaffe says that the skepticism and disenfranchisement expressed by residents like Reynolds is a reflection of the lack of diversity on the Pratt boards. He fears that skepticism will turn into apathy if there continues to be an absence of community members' voices in policy decisions--such as the closing of library branches.

"When they [the people] had a real chance to be heard [during the meeting when the closings were announced], they said what they wanted and didn't get it," Yaffe notes. "So, the lack of involvement on the part of the public is based on bitter experience."

Jackie Watts says that it would be nice to have community members serving on Pratt's boards, but that she does not know if a board comprised of just residents would be able to raise as much money in gifts and private grants that the present board does. The main qualification for being a board member should be, she says, "a love of the Pratt library."

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