March 19, 2018
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Relationship between Bangor, library complicated

Renee Ordway
By Renee Ordway, Special to the BDN

When users of Facebook enter information about themselves into the website’s system, one question deals with relationships.

Users have a number of choices: married, single, in a relationship, divorced, widowed or “it’s complicated.”

Seems a bit redundant to me because most relationships are somewhat complicated — at least the more interesting ones.

Take the relationship between the city of Bangor and the Bangor Public Library. It’s got some legs to it, being nearly 130 years old. It was in 1883 that the Mechanics Association approached city officials and recommended joining up to form a public library.

The library is a nonprofit entity, separate from the city yet reliant on city funds and clearly providing city residents with an immeasurably beneficial resource for free.

The city, hence its taxpayers, foot just about 60 percent of the library’s annual budget, yet the employees are not city employees. The library has its own nine-member board, which is independent of the city, yet the City Council appoints three members of that board.

There is all kinds of room for snags in the relationship.

Yet it has prevailed — through World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the Vietnam War, the energy crisis, and so on. It’s prevailed when good leaders were in charge and when, shall we say, more questionable ones were.

So I’m thinking it will survive the Occupy Bangor movement, which peaked in the city for a couple of months last fall.

The group, formed in the same vein as Occupy Wall Street, tented out in Peirce Park, adjacent to the library, for a while, a violation of the city’s curfew in public parks. The city eventually told the group it could no longer spend nights in the park, so some of its members moved a few steps over the line onto library property.

The city didn’t really want the library to allow the protesters to be able to set up their tents and spend nights on the library lawn. But the library board voted 6-2 to allow them to since it had no policy forbidding it, because it is mandated by the courts to provide a forum for peaceful protests, and because the majority of board members felt it important that the library support free speech.

By the first of December, with cold weather coming on and questions about insurance liability, the board voted again and chose to ask the protesters to leave. They did.

That was pretty much the end of it until last Thursday, when at a council budget workshop, council Chairman Cary Weston suggested the library’s funding could be at stake since the library board “purposely chose to be contrary to city policy” during the movement.

Weston’s questions about why the board took the action it did despite the city’s opposition were not inappropriate. The board was before it seeking $1.3 million. Many people in the city had the same questions and he felt it his duty as a city councilor to ask them.

But Weston’s tone was unnecessarily contentious.

He came off as a bit of a bully as he sat across the table from Library President Norman Minsky, Dr. Frank Bragg and Library Director Barbara McDade.

The library board voted about seven months ago. The tents came down six months ago, yet Weston said last Thursday’s budget workshop was the first time he had the opportunity to ask the board members about their decision.

He told me Friday that he had posed those questions to McDade, who never answered him. She denies ever being asked. Who knows?

Also on Friday, Weston said perhaps officials of the library and the city should meet more than once a year around the budget negotiation table.

Certainly, if the city was so upset over the library’s decision to allow the protesters to move onto its property that it may reconsider its funding of the library, that conversation should have been held sooner than six months after the fact.

The library receives significant city funding, but it does have its own board. The council’s appointees to that board have one vote each, just like the other board members.

Does it depend on the city? On the taxpayer? You bet. Just as the city and the taxpayers depend on it.

It should receive significant city funding. The city proudly holds it up as one of its most valuable institutions. It offers a free service to city residents, and even when other libraries across the country are feeling irrelevant, the Bangor Public Library continues to flourish, serving about 800 visitors a day, providing space for 470 nonlibrary-related meetings last year, and working to digitize and preserve centuries worth of historical documents.

McDade has been diligent in keeping up with technology to try to ensure the library’s relevance, thereby keeping it open for those many citizens who depend on it.

Is the relationship between the city and the library complicated? It is.

But it has been a pretty good one for the last century or so and should continue to be.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

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