Library give-away

Lease sets $100 price tag on library buildings


n Wednesday, December 4, 2002, Pittsburgh City Council amended a bill providing new leases for the city's libraries to give the Carnegie Library system a new option to purchase any of the City-owned library buildings for $100 each, at any time during the lease.  Council then gave the lease bill their preliminary approval.

Andrew Carnegie specifically intended the library buildings and grounds to be owned by the public, and not by a private library board.  Out of the 2811 libraries he donated around the world, he only allowed 5 to be set up as separately held properties.  It was his intent that the libraries be of the people, by the people and for the people — and to ensure that, that they be municipally owned properties!

Stealth property grab


ven though the library leases had contained the sales option when first introduced on November 25th, it was buried deep within them and their cover legislation misrepresented them by failing to identify it.  These are the first library leases ever signed with the City of Pittsburgh — for over a hundred years the Library has used the buildings without any leases — but the Carnegie decided it needed leases like those of the Phipps, Zoo, and Aviary to make it easier to apply for grants for building improvements.  With there being no indication to the contrary, everybody merely assumed these were simply leases like the other groups', without a hidden sales provision.

Nobody had a problem with the Carnegie having leases on the library buildings similar to the other groups — BUT — the purchase option makes these library leases markedly different!  None of the other organizations needed to take title to their properties in order to raise funding for their building improvements.

Once any of the city-owned libraries are obtained by the Carnegie Library system with a clear and marketable title, it will be able to sell the buildings and land at market price to anybody, including real estate speculators, who could tear them down and construct virtually anything they want.  The Carnegie Library management has already indicated their desire to get rid of at least 4 of the branch library buildings.

This move by the library board is eerily reminiscent of WQED Communication, Inc.'s effort to sell off WQEX-Channel 16.  There the proceeds from the sale of a precious, irreplacable public asset will be used to create a pot of money which will be available to pay hefty management salaries.  In an age when liquidating productive assets is routinely rewarded by giving management bonuses, there is nothing to indicate we can expect anything different from our library system.  Cutting services, even before the recent state funding cutbacks, while redecorating upper management offices may turn out to be one of the more superficial indications of the library's corporate management approach.  The elimination of major library collections, such as the Science and Technology Section, and the addition of more reading space for paperbacks, along with the layoffs and cutbacks of library staff hours (again prior to the state funding cutbacks) while allegedly paying management bonuses are more telling indications of the further raiding and degradation of our valuable public assets.

Of course, the corporate approach to library management should be expected when the library board chooses for its Library Director a former corporate CEO who says he never had a library card until he was appointed as the Library Director — a perfect case study of the reason state law designates that the director of libraries in communities with a population over 25,000 have a Masters Degree in Library Science.  (PLEASE NOTE:  The statements made here should not in any way be taken as impugning the Director's personal character, but rather as pointing out the need for setting and requiring qualifications for the director position.)

The public tries to be heard


ouncilman Bill Peduto says his amendment of the cover legislation on December 4th, which added the last minute mention of the purchase option, was his effort to correctly identify and make the public aware of the lease contents.  The revelation ignited a groundswell of public objection and raised calls for a public hearing.

The City Charter provides that when a petition for a public hearing on a pending bill is submitted within 3 days of its introduction, it stops any action on the bill until after the hearing.  As a matter of practice, Council has always postponed action on bills even when the petition for a hearing is submitted after the three day period.  Even without that consideration, the clarification substantively changed the bill to which the leases were attached.  On strictly legal grounds, this should have restarted the three day clock.  Therefore, on Friday, December 6th (just two days after the substantive change) a petition with more than the requisit number of signatures was submitted to the Pittsburgh City Clerk, requesting a public hearing on the leases.  (Dec. 6, 2002 newsrelease)

The public be damned


he day before the December 10th City Council meeting, the majority of Council let it be known that they would vote to break with Council's established protocol and deny the petitioned request for a public hearing.  Literally over night, several citizens prepared a legal action to stop the vote until after a hearing could be held.  They filed suit in Common Pleas Court before the Council meeting started, but Judge Joseph Gallo, giving as his reason that he did not want to take sides, sided with the Mayor and denied the request for an injunction.

In some quick political manuevering before the final vote, Councilman Jim Ferlo managed to attach a last minute amendment which requires the Carnegie Library to go back to Council for its approval again before the library system can acquire title to any of the City owned buildings.  Council then voted 5 to 4 to pass Resolution #1142, giving their approval to the leases.

While the library give-away has been slightly delayed for now, it still appears to be a done deal.  The majority of the present Council have shown no inclination to challenge the specious claim that an outright ownership of the buildings is the only way the Carnegie can improve its library facilities.  Unless citizens organize to drastically change the way thing are done on Grant street, it will most certainly continue to be business as usual.