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Battle over library control continues outside the SCV

Posted: July 4, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: July 4, 2011 1:55 a.m.
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The city’s yearlong transition from the established county library system culminated with Friday’s debut of the Santa Clarita Public Library system, but the fight over whether library operations should be handed to a private company is not over for some Santa Clarita residents.

The Santa Clarita City Council voted in August to withdraw from the county system and form its own, and to contract with private library management firm Library Systems and Services LLC to operate it. The move was met with criticism from many residents like Lori Rivas and Lori Christian who thought the city moved too quickly and without enough public discussion.

Rivas and Christian joined former local library workers at the American Library Association’s national conference in New Orleans last weekend to speak out against private companies operating public libraries.

“I hope to make other communities aware of how a private company can come in under the radar and work with city management and transform a whole public service without community input,” Rivas said.

A home schooling mother of two, Rivas said the city would not have received such harsh reaction to the move if it had gone slower and engaged the public more.

Library Systems and Services LLC, also known as LSSI, secured a 5-year, $19 million contract to operate the Newhall, Valencia and Canyon Country Jo Anne Darcy libraries.

ALA’s stance
Marci Merola, the association’s library advocacy director, said the ALA has a strong policy against privatization.
Santa Clarita officials maintain that they did not privatize the libraries. Though the three branches are operated by LSSI, the system is still managed by the city, council members say.

But Merola said the association’s stance on the issue is about keeping libraries in the public trust.

“You want records public, to know how tax dollars are being spent, and librarians that are in touch with the needs of the community and the demographic. Really it’s about being clear with your community.”

But LSSI officials say their librarians are just like any others.

“For the great majority of people that walk in, they have not been really paying attention to this issue,” said Mark Smith,
vice president of LSSI’s West Coast operations. “Our librarians appear to them just like librarians anywhere would appear. They’re absolutely accessible.”

Smith said the transparency issue is really about wanting to know what LSSI’s profits were. If city officials want to know how the company is spending taxpayer money, they can ask for an audit, Smith said.

The seminar
About 75 people attended Rivas’ and Christian’s seminar, during which they spoke of their concerns about the city contracting with LSSI.

Christian said there are several things that set Santa Clarita apart as a contract city.

“For one, it happened so quickly,” Christian said. “It was how little notice the community had; how little regard the City Council had for the public ... and the fact that our city doesn’t have any real budgetary concerns in terms of libraries. We weren’t in danger of having libraries closed, or hours drastically cut. ... Our libraries were fine.”

LSSI’s other nearby contracts are with cities or counties that had beleaguered systems that did face cutbacks. Meanwhile, the new city system expanded library hours and its book-buying budget.

About 40 of those attending Rivas’ seminar were from LSSI, including co-founder Frank Pezzanite.

“It was hard to understand their concerns,” Pezzanite said. “They were coming from a very emotional place.”
Rivas said she was reinvigorated by ALA’s reception of her presentation.

“It was encouraging to me to speak to an audience that was receptive, rather than the stonewall we get from the City Council and city management,” Rivas said.

When asked for comment on these remaining concerns, Mayor Marsha McLean said in an email: “We are really excited to be opening our libraries ... and our residents will be able to see for themselves and enjoy the improvements that are being implemented.”

But Rivas won’t. Rivas said she won’t join the Santa Clarita Public Library system.

“Not as long as LSSI is running it,” she said.

Ron Dubberly, LSSI’s president of public library operations, stood amid the crowd at the Canyon Country Jo Anne Darcy Library at Friday’s reopening celebration. He said the proof is in the pudding.

“Look at all the smiling faces,” Dubberly said. “This is a good outcome. We’re just going to get on with it and serve the public.”

The outcome should be all that matters, Dubberly said. The city pays them to run a quality library system, he said, and how they do that is their business.

Rivas’ trip to the conference was paid for by the Service Employees International Union.

Pezzanite said his 40-plus employees attended the conference under company sponsorship.

State legislation
Contracting out library services is the focal point of proposed California legislation. A state Senate committee will consider a bill Tuesday that would require a lengthy public process, including proving cost savings before a city could contract library services to a private company. The legislation would also require voter approval before a city could contract with a private firm. The bill has already passed the state Assembly. Rivas plans to speak at the Senate hearing, too.

If the bill becomes law, Santa Clarita won’t be affected.

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