I am reprinting the letter I sent to the Daily Chronicle, word-for-word, copied and pasted from the e-mail message:
The controversy over the Open Meetings Act regarding the DeKalb Public Library’s possible purchase of the vacant DeKalb Clinic property provides an excellent opportunity for local government to set things right for the people of DeKalb.
I think libraries are great. In the late 1990s, I traveled to Russia for research during a period of extreme economic stress. Libraries and archives cut back on spending so severely that even Moscow’s main library (their equivalent of the Library of Congress) could not afford to turn on the lights during the daytime and operated late into November with no heat. Yet, people went to the library and the staff did not give up and close the doors. After seeing first-hand how important the people of Russia’s fledgling democracy considered their libraries, I made a career change, began working in a library, and earned a degree in library science by commuting from DeKalb to Urbana for classes. I believe I am qualified to form a unique perspective about the importance of libraries.
Currently, any possible purchase of the DeKalb Clinic by the DeKalb Public Library would be under unclear and very questionable circumstances. Of all the local government bodies, many people generally have higher expectations for a public library, in that it should be scandal-free and have trustworthy people leading it. The DeKalb Public Library served generations of DeKalb residents faithfully, built upon the trust of Jacob Haish’s generous donation. The faith and trust that previous generations of DeKalb residents enjoyed toward the library should remain without taint for current and future generations. The library can regain faith and trust, however. I call upon the leaders of the DeKalb Public Library to press the reboot buttons (ctrl-alt-del) on the DeKalb Clinic purchase; make a convincing case to the people of DeKalb that building a new library is necessary; and take the proposal of a new library to a referendum, up front, openly, and truthfully. A good-faith referendum would reveal if the people of DeKalb truly support a new library. Library leaders should also explain how a new library became a priority over improving police facilities and explain clearly how the city can afford it, despite the recent and sad layoffs of city employees. The legacy of Jacob Haish’s generosity toward the people of DeKalb deserves all of that. Anything worth doing . . . is worth doing right.
For a short period of time, this letter will be available.
I am astounded by the level of what seems to be a misunderstanding demonstrated by the authors of that letter.
So, where in my letter did I call what happened a “scandal”? I called it a “controversy.” I wrote that libraries should remain “scandal-free.”
So, where in my letter did I mention “jail” or the “DeKalb County Board”? I wrote “police.” The City of DeKalb discussed a new police station. What happened to that discussion? It was too expensive? How did the library end up ahead of a new police station?
So, where in my letter did I accuse library board members of being “untrustworthy”?
What I wrote is that libraries should have higher standards.
What I wrote was that to regain the trust of the people, the purchase should be thrown out and the process should start over. What I wrote is that to get the trust of the people, the library board should reach out to them and make their case that the purchase should happen, upfront. A referendum brings the truth that the public (at least the voters) supports something. Otherwise, there is just anecdotal information that the public supports something. A referendum measures how much the public supports a decision. Anybody can say that the public supports them but a referendum would prove that support exists and is the truth.
When I wrote “Currently,” in context that means we do not know everything yet. That is the whole point of the Open Meetings Act, to lay out the business of public bodies to the public. Otherwise, we have no idea what is going on and everything that happens in closed session is questionable because we do not know what happened.
What I wrote was my road map of what can be done to clear this issue, start fresh, and really sell the idea of a new library to the people through a voter referendum.
On the possibility of a referendum, here is some new information. There are three basic types of public libraries in the State of Illinois, municipal (home-rule community), municipal (non home-rule), and district. The DeKalb Public Library is a municipal library, within a home-rule community. A city can allow a library within a home-rule community to tax with limitless power. A referendum is not necessary in a home-rule community. Here is a quote:
In home-rule municipalities, the rule is much different. There is no statutory limitation on the tax levy of home-rule municipalities, and the tax cap legislation does not apply to its levy. In those situations, municipal corporate authorities have the right, but no obligation, to permit its library board to levy the real estate taxes above its statutory maximum and to, in effect, utilize the home-rule community’s unlimited taxing powers. This process often results in some negotiations between a home-rule municipality and the officials of its library board.”
That quote is from page 17 in the book Financial Manual for Illinois Public Libraries written by Ancel Glink, Stewart H. Diamond, and W. Britt Isaly and published by the Illinois Library Association in 2007. Full disclosure–I am a member of the Illinois Library Association and I think it is a wonderful organization! I also own that book, and so does the DeKalb Public Library in its professional reference collection. Who Glink, Diamond, and Isaly are can be found here: http://www.ancelglink.com/ Their link to “Staying out of Trouble: Proper Board Practices and Procedures” leads to a PowerPoint presentation that explains the Open Meetings Act in plain English, in simple terms.
For municipal libraries in non-home-rule communities, things are a little more complicated because tax caps come into play. Tax caps used to be more complicated with PTELL (Property Tax extension limitation Law). The Illinois General Assembly cleared out some of the complications with Public Act 94-976 (see p. 31 of the Glick book). To keep this in the most basic terms using simplicity, a municipality with a municipal library in a non-home-rule community cannot raise taxes at will.
For non-city libraries that have their own district, a public library that is within a district does not have the taxing power that a municipal library does within a home-rule community. A library district is a separate taxing body altogether. A library district would have to use a referendum to approve significant spending, such as the building of a new library. A library district would be more like a park district, separate from a municipality. Many of the best public libraries in the State of Illinois are within library districts, not municipal public libraries. Libraries in library districts do not have to be caught in the middle of some whim by the leaders of a municipality. They can function separately from the politics. They do, however, have to work harder because they must convince voters through referendums before major spending projects occur.
Here is the bottom line:
As a public library within a home-rule community, the City of DeKalb can allow the DeKalb Public Library to raise taxes with “unlimited taxing powers” (see p. 17 of Glick) A referendum is not necessary.
I think the DeKalb Public Library should have a referendum anyway, because that is the best way we have now that can measure voter decisions, and the level of support the public library has in DeKalb.