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The Fullerton City Council votes Tuesday on whether to take control of the public library, a move library board members fear would give the council power to wrest assets from the more than 100-year-old library system and potentially use them to pay city debts.
“The only motivation I can come up in my head with, is they need money. Everybody knows we need money … all of our roads are terrible, with the exception of a couple main ones,” said Fullerton Library Trustee Joshua Dale at a Monday’s emergency library board meeting.
If adopted, the Council vote would replace the library’s five-member Board of Trustees with city council members. City laws passed in 1906 set up the current Fullerton Public Library System.
“The Board of Trustees shall have the general control of the Library, its property and funds; hire the necessary employees for the Library and fix their compensation; pass the necessary rules and regulations for the government of the library affairs; and perform such other acts,” reads city code.
But Mayor Doug Chaffee said he doesn’t think the majority of the City Council will vote in favor of taking over the library.
“I’m unaware of any one of us wanting to take it over,” Chaffee said. “I don’t see support for it.”
Chaffee said city staff was obligated to bring the item back after it was suggested by Councilwoman Jennifer Fitzgerald at the May 1 Council meeting during a committee and commission restructuring item.
Fitzgerald said at the May 1 meeting“I do want to bring the library board code sections up to date and I want to add to that that we institute a new organizational structure … that calls for the appointment of the city council members to serve as the trustees to the library board and to form a library advisory commission.”
Fitzgerald did not return a phone call Monday seeking comment.
City Manager Ken Domer, in a Monday email said, “So whether something is popular or not, the item must be brought back to Council for consideration and the public has the opportunity to provide input.”
Former library board President Glenn Georgieff said it’s a move by the council to go around the library board.
“The library community doesn’t want them (City Council) to touch the library properties, so I think they’re trying to circumvent those concerns by disbanding the Board of Trustees … so they can just at-will vote on whether to sell the properties, close the library … whatever they want to do with the library,” Georgieff said in a phone interview.
About 20 people attended the Monday emergency library board meeting to voice their concerns and the board agreed on a letter, authored by Trustee Ryan Cantor, that calls for a joint meeting.
“We may need to tone that letter down a little bit … we may want to be a little more facilitating in our language,” Dale said.
“The five of us have gone out of our way to be nice for the last six months … I think it’s time to read them the riot act,” Cantor said.
After some debate among trustees, the board agreed on the language of the letter.
Georgieff said if the council opts to get rid of the library board, it would be easier for the City Council to make changes to the library system.
“At present [changes] would have to go through the Board of Trustees and I think they’re (City Council) getting pushback. The Board of Trustees wants to keep the library as it is. So there’s a power play going on right now,” Georgieff said.
According to the staff report, council members will start replacing trustees after their three-year terms expire. Starting in January 2019, two council members would be placed on the board, if the council votes to replace it.
Board members are worried about the future of library properties including the Hunt Library and a plot of land called the Bastanchury site, located on Bastanchury Road, south of Beechwood Elementary School in north Fullerton.
Chaffee said the Bastanchury property is the Library Foundation’s business.
“The city doesn’t own it — it belongs to the Foundation. They can do with it what they want,” Chaffee said.
The Fullerton Library Foundation, a nonprofit organization geared to help raise library funds, purchased the Bastanchury property in 1999 in hopes of building another library. Shortly after the purchase, the land was transferred to the city to take care of and to avoid paying sales tax on the property.
Because of its own economic woes, the library board has been looking to sell the property to put more funds back into the library system since building a new library has been deemed unfeasible. The City Council voted to transfer the land back to the foundation July 17.
Board President Sean Paden said the Bastanchury property is safe because the city gave it back to the foundation, but he and other trustees are worried about the Hunt Library.
Chaffee said, should the city sell the Hunt building, some of the money would go back to the library system.
“It is city property for the council to decide on, without the library board,” Chaffee said.
Paden said council members could be conflicted if they take over the board.
“If they’re sitting here they can only think about what’s best for the library … we’re running a deficit in the city, everybody knows that. The temptation is going to be overwhelming for the City Council,” Paden said at Monday’s meeting.
According to the adopted budget, the city has a balanced budget this year but library supporters said they feared if the city takes over, it would sell property and use the money to pay future city bills.
Paden said Fitzgerald, in the past, has mentioning privatizing the library. But there’s been no analysis to show that approach is cheaper, Paden said.
“I want to do what’s best for the library. So if there’s a cheaper way to do that, I’m all for it,” Paden said in a phone interview before the meeting.
There’s also concern over the potential sale of the Hunt Branch Library, which was closed five years ago due to budget constraints and safety reasons, according to board minutes.
In February 2016, the board voted to sell the property and then-City Manager Joe Felz said the City Council would direct the funds from the sale back into the library system, according to meeting minutes.
The Hunt Library property was intended to be used solely for the library after Hunt Food and Industries donated the land to Fullerton in 1964. Businessman and billionaire Norton Simon operated the company in Fullerton where it remained until 1999. Grace Ministries currently is leasing the building from the city.
Simon started a charitable art foundation in 1952, the Norton Simon Foundation, which dictated the use of the Hunt Library property through the deed to the city.
But in a 2012 letter to the city, the art foundation relinquished any control it had over the property.
“Consequently, the Foundation does not intend to take any further action with regard to enforcement of the above-described restrictions on the City of Fullerton’s use of the Hunt Branch Library property,” reads the letter.
According to library board meeting minutes from April and May, there’s been discussions about the Hunt Library property. Some of the suggestions at the May meeting included renegotiating the lease with Grace Ministries, constructing a funding model to reopen the library and selling the property, while directing the money from the sale back to the library system.
The Fullerton City Council meets Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. in City Hall.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio