BANGOR, Maine — Five months after the Occupy Bangor movement occupied Peirce Park and the Bangor Public Library grounds for almost a month, the library’s administration and board faced some tough questions during a City Council budget session.
After board member Norm Minsky and library director Barbara McDade finished a presentation for a $1,383,000 fiscal year 2013 budget to several Bangor city councilors at Thursday evening’s budget session in council chambers, Mayor Cary Weston had a couple of questions.
Weston, the council’s chairman, asked them to explain their decision not to bar members of Occupy Bangor from library grounds after hours from Oct. 29 until Dec. 4.
“It’s difficult sometimes to hear the library claim to be a city department with historical ties, following procedures and protocols and doing all it can to be part of the city conversation, and then making a decision like that which is contrary to our public policy which cost us time, money, aggravation and lost resources,” Weston said during the session.
Weston referred to city ordinances prohibiting events and people from staying on public park grounds after hours of operation. Occupy Bangor members camped out in Peirce Park, right next to the library, and the library grounds for more than a month despite ordinances barring their presence from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
“It’s just a very difficult decision to try to swallow. We have not been told why,” Weston said after the meeting. “The board’s never discussed it with us or explained it. This public forum was the first time I’ve seen the board and been provided the opportunity to actually ask that question.”
McDade said there were a couple of main reasons for the board’s decision.
“We felt that we had no policy that people couldn’t be on our grounds,” she said Monday. “We do let people on grounds when we’re closed because we have Wi-Fi and people like to use it who might have trouble accessing it in other parts of Bangor.”
Three members of the nine-member board — Norm Minsky, Dr. Franklin Bragg and Lee Chick — also attended Thursday’s session.
“We talked about it long and hard, but philosophically, we thought free speech was consistent with a library’s existence,” Bragg told the councilors. “It wasn’t unanimous, but finally we decided since we didn’t have an antecedent policy against this, we would come down on the side of free speech.”
Weston said while that was understandable, it drained city resources, including the time and productivity of City Hall staff and public safety and public works employees.
“If you’re going to be a part of the city and have a relationship with the city, then you should respect the city’s policies, especially since the taxpayers are funding more than 50 percent of their operational budget,” Weston said after the meeting. “I think respect of those policies is not too much to ask.”
McDade said 60 percent of library funding comes from the city. Most of the remaining funding stems from library endowment funds, with another $177,000 coming from the state to be the area’s research and reference center.
“The city and the library historically have a fantastic relationship,” Weston said. “The library provides tremendous value to our citizens and the city, and I think study after study shows having libraries adds to the economic and community value.”
But he went on to say it was the library’s significant funding commitment that made it important to get answers to his questions.
“The people of Bangor have elected us to make policy and budget decisions,” he said. “We have to be objective with the people’s money.”
Occupy Bangor campers, who numbered between 10 and 50 at various times throughout the month-long occupation, were asked to leave library property Dec. 2.
“When we finally decided we were at risk from a liability perspective, we decided to ask them to leave, and they did,” Bragg said.
Minsky said the majority of library users’ comments about the library’s handling of Occupy Bangor were favorable. McDade said while many library patrons didn’t agree with Occupy Bangor members, two-thirds of patrons said they supported the library’s decision to allow them to stay on its grounds.
When asked after Thursday’s meeting whether he was satisfied by the answers to his questions, Weston paused.
“I don’t think I found out any new info from the board’s answer to my question,” he said.
McDade said she hopes the issue doesn’t imperil library funding.
“I just hate to see library funding become a divisive issue. We’re open to everyone and I don’t want to see this become a political thing,” she said.
Weston said the handling of Occupy Bangor might affect library funding.
“There’s a good chance past behavior, past value, and quite honestly, past appreciation for the funds allocated to any entity, city or noncity, is always a factor in determining allocation of funds,” he said.
McDade said Monday that she and board members were surprised by Weston’s questions and comments.
“Obviously, I was surprised by his reaction,” she said. “I think Bangor came out of the whole Occupy thing very well.”
Weston defended his position.
“I think it’s fair to ask for explanation and fair to question the logic behind the decision,” he said. “This isn’t a public polling exercise. This is an objective decision as to whether we’re spending our taxpayers’ money the right way.”