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Ernie Davis seeks control of Mount Vernon library board

City of Mount Vernon Mayor Ernie Davis in

City of Mount Vernon Mayor Ernie Davis in his office at City Hall. (Dec. 13, 2012) Photo Credit: Xavier Mascarenas

Mount Vernon Mayor Ernie Davis is trying to wrest control of the city's cash-strapped public library from the school district, pushing for legislation that would give him the power to appoint members to the library's board of trustees.

The legislation -- filed by state Assemblyman J. Gary Pretlow (D-Mount Vernon) -- would require that trustees nominated by Davis be approved by the City Council. New trustees would be installed as the terms of the existing trustees expired. The five-member board would be required to provide an annual financial report to the City Council.

Davis said the legislation is aimed at giving the city a greater say in the leadership structure and overall direction of the library, which gets more than $3.3 million in funding from the city every year, as well as other assistance.

"It should be a city-run library," Davis told Newsday. "The way it is currently structured is fiscally irresponsible. Giving the city control over the library would be in the best interests of both the city and the library itself."

Currently, the school district has authority over the library board, while the city provides funding -- an arrangement that Davis and other city officials say has led to a lack of transparency. The trustees are supposed to be elected, but the district hasn't been putting the seats up for a vote, which has caused some friction with the State Board of Regents.

Na'im Tyson, president of the library's board of trustees, didn't return a phone call Monday seeking comment. Neither did Mount Vernon Schools Superintendent Judith Johnson.

Councilman Richard Thomas agrees with Davis that the library's current board of trustees has been ineffective, but said he isn't sure that giving the city full control over the board is the best way to address the leadership problems.

"I'm not so sure that the city is the appropriate custodian of the library," Thomas said. "But I'm open to any idea that assists the city in addressing its organizational and financial needs. We desperately need to do something about it."

Gary Newman, president of the chapter of the Civil Service Employees Association that represents the library's two dozen unionized workers, said the union's membership fully supports the move by the city to appoint the board of trustees.

"It has never really made sense that the city's school district controls the library," Newman said. "We believe this should be a municipal library."

Davis, a Democrat, has consolidated his grip on power since returning to the mayor's office in 2011, pushing to exert more control over issues from budget cuts to communication between department heads and council members. He argues that the city's myriad crime and financial problems call for a strong mayor with far-reaching authority. The city's lack of control over the library has been squarely in his crosshairs.

Davis cut funding for the library in this year's budget to $3.3 million, roughly $250,000 less than it received in 2012, to lessen the blow of a property tax increase that was originally forecast to be 10 percent for 2013.

In 2011, the city cut library funding by $100,000, a move that forced the board of trustees to eliminate some programs and cut its operating hours down to the bare minimum 55 hours per week required under state law.

Thomas and Councilman Yuhanna Edwards had pushed for even deeper cuts to the library funding, suggesting that funding be reduced to $1.5 million as part of a package of budget reforms they say would save the city $7 million. Edwards and Thomas also want the library's board to come up with a "solvency plan" within the next six months. They have suggested the school district should take full responsibility for the library.

The proposed changes come at a time of upheaval at the library, which has seen the abrupt departures of two directors since last December. Director Opal Brown Lindsay stepped down after the board approved a confidential severance package. Lindsay's replacement, Donna Hurwitz, quit in early December after just three months on the job.

Aside from the political turmoil, the building where the library is housed has significant infrastructure needs, including a leaking roof and a sprinkler system that hasn't been functional for several years, city officials say.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit foundation that raises money for the library -- the Mount Vernon Public Library Foundation -- is in the process of dissolving amid concerns about the leadership of the library and its relationship with the city. The 15-member foundation has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the library since it was formed about five years ago, using the money to buy new books and computer equipment, but has been relatively inactive in the past year.

Board member John Madeo said foundation members hope the city and library can work out the leadership problems.

"We're hoping that the organizational structure is going to be settled so that the library can regain its status as a pre-eminent facility in Westchester County," he said.

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