Library Friends groups are fighting county eviction threat
|A library book sale organized by the Friends of George Mason Library.|
Library Friends groups are engaged in a bitter dispute with the administrators of the Fairfax County Public Libraries (FCPL), who they say are trying to control their finances and are threatening to kick them out of the library if they don’t sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU).
The biggest point of contention in the MOU, adopted by the Library Board of Trustees in January, is a provision requiring Friends groups to turn over all their financial records to the FCPL.
Friends groups believe the MOU is one-sided and say they would sign if they have a chance to make some modifications – but they’ve told they either have to sign it as is or be evicted. “We’re being told it’s our way or the highway,” says Charles Keener of the Friends of the Tysons-Pimmit Regional Library.
The Tysons Friends group, which has not signed the MOU, passed out flyers at its book sale earlier this month stating, “this may be our final book sale.”
The Friends of the George Mason, Reston, Centreville, Thomas Jefferson, and Kingstowne libraries also have not signed the MOU.
According to FCPL Director Jessica Hudson, the Kings Park, Dolly Madison, Martha Washington, Lorton, and City of Fairfax libraries have signed.
The Friends of Woodrow Wilson Library have also signed the MOU, reports Pat Jack of the Friends group. “We’re very small potatoes; this MOU really is aimed at the larger libraries that make a lot of money. We felt we could live with it. We thought about disbanding but felt we couldn’t do it to the staff.”
“It was not handled well by the trustees,” Jack says. “They tend to dictate and not collaborate.”
Keener believes some Friends are waiting to see if they are actually going to be evicted before signing.
Hudson says she hopes all of the Friends will eventually sign the MOU by July 31 but “we haven’t set a firm deadline.” If any Friends groups refuse to sign “we would work toward dissolution of our partnership,” she says, which means the Friends group would be “removed from the library space” and could no longer use the library name.
Lack of compromise
“If they treated us as equals, all of the issues could be resolved,” says Dennis Hays, chair of Fairfax Library Advocates. “We could probably hash it out in an hour or two. It is baffling why the county is antagonizing a group that has been so helpful to the library system.”
“If the friends were to go away, the ability of the library to serve the public would be severely impacted,” Hayes says.
Library Friends are volunteers, and many of them seniors. They put in countless hours supporting their local library branch and collectively raise hundreds of thousands of dollars a year – mostly from book sales – for library programs, landscaping, furniture, and much more. George Mason Friends pays for the countywide summer reading program.
Keener accuses Hudson of “dictating, threatening, and bullying, instead of being willing to compromise.” There has been a “great deal of mistrust, anger and sense of disrespect throughout the process,” he wrote in an email to County Executive Bryan Hill. “How is it going to look when they send marshals to throw out little old ladies who sell books?”
Hudson brushes aside the criticism, insisting “many Friends groups had an opportunity to have their feedback taken into account.”
There have been many meetings on the MOU, representatives of Friends groups acknowledge, but they say they aren’t being listened to.
“Every effort by Friends to offer an alternative MOU was completely rebuffed,” Keener says, and Friends’ request to have FCPL adopt a model MOU from the American Library Association was ignored.
Friends have also pointed to the county’s plan to use separate MOUs for friends groups that support Fairfax County parks and suggested FCPL do the same for library Friends.
According to Hudson, the library Friends groups generally have the same missions and do the same activities, so “having the same overarching document makes a lot of sense,” while the park friends groups are more varied.
The single biggest point of contention is the provision in the MOU calling for Friends to turn over detailed financial records to Fairfax County, despite the lack of evidence of any wrongdoing.
“We are fine with providing the same basic financial summaries we file with the Feds and which are presented in our treasurer reports at our board meetings and given to the branch manager,” Keener says. “But the director has told groups that they must provide copies of every receipt and copies of their actual bank records.”
Keener finds it especially insulting that “they are asking us to turn in every Costco receipt.”
“The concern is that some of the friends have reserves, and it appears the county would like to make use of them,” Hays says. “We literally give millions of dollars to the county.”
A lawyer specializing in nonprofit law hired by several Friends groups told them “the county has no legal right to demand such detailed internal records from a legally recognized independent nonprofit entity,” Keener notes.
“Throughout this process, we have not been treated as an equal party to a mutual agreement,” he says. “And now we are being outright bullied and threatened if we dare to uphold our legal rights and follow our conscience.”
“As a county taxpayer I am beyond angry to see this disrespect and abuse directed toward citizens who have given selflessly of their time for decades,” Keener says. “This is truly Big Brother run amok.”
Hudson defends the need for more financial information. “The library board feels strongly that it’s part of their fiduciary responsibility to provide transparency around monetary issues,” she says. “Friends want more transparency, too. We will provide them more information on how libraries use their money.”
Hays and Keener would like to see the Board of Supervisors step in and resolve the issue. “The optics of having the friends goose-stepped out of the library is something the supervisors don’t want to visualize,” Hayes says.
Kathy Kaplan, a longtime advocate of the libraries, believes the current conflict with the Friends is an extension of previous attacks on the library system. That includes attempts to slash the FCPL budget, the “beta plan” in 2013 to restructure how the branches operate, and the systematic effort to throw out thousands of books to make more space.
The number of library books has been cut to 2.15 million, down from 3 million in 2004, Kaplan says, and FCPL is purchasing very few nonfiction books for adults, and almost no science, history, or philosophy books. Kaplan suspects the FCPL’s ultimate goal is to turn libraries into human services centers or community centers.
Hays notes the libraries already do a lot of community projects, such as bringing in guest speakers, hosting community groups in meeting rooms, and organizing children’ programs. But “turning the buildings into community centers with books along one wall is not what a library is.”
When asked about her vision for the library system, Hudson said libraries are not going to become community centers. “We are more of a community hub, with computer access and programming for children and adults,” she says. “We are continuing to meet baseline services – checking out books and reading programs for children, for example – and will build on that.”
Library advocates aren’t buying it. “This is part of a radical rightwing effort to destroy educational institutions in our state,” Kaplan says. “We need to have a functioning library that provides information for the public.”
Ellie Ashford at 12:35 PM