CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — A near-unanimous opinion emerged from a recent public forum: The town should build a new library.
That apparent conclusion was the result of a nearly two-hour meeting hosted Aug. 29 by the Library Planning Committee. About 65 people filled the Cape Elizabeth High School cafeteria for the round-table discussion and answered broad questions about how the town library could best serve the public, and whether the town should renovate the existing library, leave it alone, or build a new one.
Slowly, a consensus emerged. Attendees at the meeting want the town to tear down the existing library and build anew.
But does that opinion represent the view of the electorate, or was the meeting attended by a disproportionate number of library enthusiasts?
Less than a year ago, Cape Elizabeth voters soundly defeated a $6 million bond proposal that would have funded a new library building. In the wake of the 3,566-to-2,696 vote, the Town Council formed the Library Planning Committee and charged it with developing a new plan, based on the public’s feedback.
On Thursday, the feedback overwhelmingly called for a new library building.
Committee Chairwoman Molly MacAuslan acknowledged that many at the meeting were avid supporters of the library, but she added that it’s impossible to know whether the crowd was a representative sample of Cape Elizabeth voters.
“I don’t have a way to answer that question because, A, I’m not a statistician and, B, I don’t know if 90 percent of community members are, by their nature, library supporters,” she said. “It’s not surprising that we had library supporters come out, because they care. It’s something that’s important to them.”
The public forum is just one step toward gathering public input on the library, MacAuslan said. Soon, the committee will also mail a survey to residents.
“Of course, you have the same issue there,” she said. “Who responds [to a survey]? The people who care — on either side — which is not necessarily a representative sample.”
There was at least one voice of opposition at the public forum. Philip Kaminsky, who has been following the Thomas Memorial Library issue for more than a year and was an outspoken critic of the previous initiative, circulated a flyer at the meeting calling attention to perceived flaws in the planning and design process.
Kaminsky contends that a design charrette should have been hosted by an impartial architect instead of a public forum hosted by a committee that is “dominated by library insiders.”
Kaminsky agreed that it’s impossible to say whether the group at the meeting was representative of the electorate. However, he thinks the committee could have taken additional steps to broaden attendance and discourse. The meeting was too short and should have been held on a weekend, he said.
“That meeting, from my point of view, was a self-serving meeting that essentially said, ‘Yes, we did it. We brought the community in,’ when, in fact, the community never really had an opportunity to express their visions,” Kaminsky said.
Attendees of the public forum sat in groups of eight or less at separate tables. One person at each table was tasked with keeping notes of the discussion. Town Manager Michael McGovern observed the meeting from the back of the room and said afterward that it was a good first step toward gathering information.
“I thought it was very constructive. I sense that the committee heard some clear input,” he said, adding that the consensus is to construct a new library.
The aging library at 6 Scott Dyer Road is made up of five separate buildings that have been cobbled together. The oldest wing dates to 1849. A 2009 study by a Wisconsin-based library consulting firm, Himmel & Wilson, identified more than 100 deficiencies, including water damage, structural inadequacy and antiquated electrical wiring.
MacAuslan said the next step in the planning process is to hire an architect. The committee has identified four candidates, one of whom will be chosen before the end of the month. The architect will not serve as a project designer, but will instead identify the scope of the project by reviewing standards set by the American Library Association and other criteria to determine the right type and size of facility to accommodate the community.
The Town Council will likely allocate funds for an architect at its next meeting on Monday, Sept. 9. McGovern estimates the architect will be paid less than $20,000 for the project.
The Library Planning Committee will also meet on Monday to review notes that were taken in the public forum.
“It will be kind of an information dump,” she said of the notes. “We’ll have to figure out how to make sense of it.”