Editorial: Give the Mount Vernon library independence

Mount Vernon Public Library. (Dec. 18, 2012) Mount Vernon Public Library. (Dec. 18, 2012) Photo Credit: Xavier Mascarenas

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It's tempting for Mayor Ernie Davis to seek control of the Mount Vernon Public Library. The city is paying $3.3 million this year for it but has little, if any, say over its governance. As a result, the library lacks proper oversight, management and funding.

It's accountable to no one.

But City Hall shouldn't take over the library, nor should it continue to fund it. The library budget should be voted on by the public and its trustees should be elected. It should be run as a separate taxing entity, as outlined by the New York Small Cities Schools Act, and be directly accountable to the public.

Chartered in the 1890s, Mount Vernon's library operates under a bizarre arrangement: It's the only one of New York's 756 public library systems where the city pays the bills, yet its operations fall under the Board of Education and the five library trustees the board appoints. Since the school district provides scant financial support, oversight or direction -- or information to the public for that matter -- it appears the district long ago closed the book on this vital resource. It's clearly not giving the library the attention it needs.

The library is open the minimal 55 hours a week required by law, its doors are shuttered most weekends (the library is open one Saturday a month) and a note on the Web page for the local history room says "closed until further notice."

Making matters worse is that two directors have left in the last year, one with a confidential severance package and another after only three months on the job. Funding cuts from the city in recent years haven't helped; in 2009, the city provided $4.1 million -- $800,000 more than this year. And the nonprofit group charged with raising money for the library is ready to dissolve amid concerns over a lack of leadership and the library's awkward relationship with the city. After all, who would donate to an institution that lacks proper supervision?

You can be sure this is not what Andrew Carnegie had in mind when he donated $50,000 in 1904 to build the Neoclassical Revival-style building. The industrial magnate believed in helping communities -- ones that were eager, able and committed to build these vital institutions of knowledge on the condition they would provide money for adequate maintenance and operations.

The city has two options. Leaders can back the mayor's plan to take control of the library, engineered by a bill sponsored by Assemb. Gary Pretlow (D-Mount Vernon). But that must be approved by the State Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, and it gives too much power to city leaders.

The better path is the one taken for the City of New Rochelle's library a decade ago: That option would clarify the confusing, outdated and handwritten charter with the state's Board of Regents and manage the Mount Vernon Public Library as a true small city school district library. While there might be resistance to creating another taxing entity -- as there was in New Rochelle -- it would give the public a say over the library's operations and leadership. The library's administration would also be far more open and transparent.

Mount Vernon can write its next chapter, but it must turn the page on its archaic, confusing and inadequate library operations.

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