Fullerton City Council members will continue to directly appoint people to the five-member Library Board of Trustees after the Council decided not to change the appointment process.

The Council discussed how members should be appointed to the Library Board to give city staff direction for writing a board appointment policy for a vote at a later meeting, but the majority of the council members said they didn’t want to change the appointment process.

“I’ve not seen conflict on the board itself and I have to say every member on the City Council has picked solid members on the board that I have enjoyed working with,” Library Board President Sean Paden told the Council Oct. 2.

The board oversees the library spending and operations for the city.

At the Sept. 18 meeting the council unanimously voted against taking over the Library Board’s positions and responsibilities.

When the Library Board of Trustees learned the Council was considering taking over, it held a special meeting Sept. 17 and voted to send a letter voicing its opposition to the council. Board members feared the City Council would sell library property to help pay down the city’s increasing pension costs — an issue that hits nearly every Orange County city.

After numerous current and former board members and residents spoke against the proposed Council takeover at the Sept. 18 meeting, Mayor Doug Chaffee suggested the Council move away from the direct appointment process.

“The idea is not a council idea. It’s an idea I had when listening to people at the last council meeting who were concerned about the independence of the library,” Chafee said Oct. 2. He also said the library groups should “should have the major say. I find it awkward for council members to make those appointments.”

“You find it awkward for us to appoint people to this committee and not other committees? And I’m not trying to be smart about this — I’m just asking because I have suggested in the past that we move away from direct council appointees and back to all at-large appointees,” Councilwoman Jennifer Fitzgerald said.  

In May, Fitzgerald first proposed the library takeover. The plan was to phase out the library board when members’ terms expired and to begin appointing council members to the board, according to the Sept. 18 agenda.

The Oct. 2 discussion item suggested the Council move to at-large appointments. The fundraising group the Library Foundation and volunteer group Friends of the Library would have made library board appointment recommendations to the City Council for a vote.

“I thought having the stakeholders (library groups) at least vet the applications, it would help that process. It doesn’t seem to be popular with the speakers I heard and not the council either,” Chaffee said.

Councilman Bruce Whitaker said the at-large process could become politicized.

“You (Chaffee) were talking about how to depoliticize it, but in my opinion, when you have a super group … choose the members, that also has a politicizing effect,” Whitaker said.

Chaffee contended a council member could appoint someone who’s not fit for the board.

“I think the council by each appointing one, it seems like a buddy sometimes gets appointed — somebody who was owed a favor,” Chafee said.

Paden said the Council’s political differences will often lead to a fight on the dais when voting on an item, and that could happen to library board appointments if the at-large process was adopted.

“The final decision … for all five city council members made as a majority vote — that becomes a fight,” Paden said. “This approach is an approach that’s going to create more conflict at the City Council level. As things stand right now, as it’s currently configured, I think we have gotten along very well … The appointment process is not political and the process at the ground level is not.”

Community watchdog Joshua Ferguson said an at-large process could give the City Council more influence over the board and council members would be tempted to sell library property to pay down pensions.

“We literally have a government to do functions and we hire people to do functions and we’re paying them so much we can’t accomplish the things we hired them to do. It’s why our roads suck,” Ferguson said.

The city committed an additional roughly $3.2 million from a property sale from the last fiscal year in its current budget to help fix and maintain road conditions. City staff have been applying for various grants in order to secure more funding for road repair.

“Because all it takes is three people to stand up and say ‘hey, we don’t need a library, we need more pensions,’” Ferguson said. “The idea of a majoritarian tyranny of three of you picking the library board is a terrible idea.”

“I would say that’s not the idea,” Chaffee countered.

Councilman Jesus Silva said the direct appointment process keeps the Council accountable.

“I am leaning towards keeping that direct appointment because it keeps me accountable … I think that is a democratic way of doing it,” Silva said.

The City Council is slated to meet with the board to talk about library issues, although no date has been given yet.

“I think that we’re on a good path now. We need to have a frank conversation with the current Library Board about particular issues that the Library Board and the City Council, the city manager and the library director, have been dealing with,” Fitzgerald said.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter@SpencerCustodio

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