CLEARWATER – Not everyone is happy with the new interlocal agreement governing Pinellas County’s Public Library Cooperative.
The Cooperative’s executive director has resigned and the assistant director is leaving as well. Volunteers who sit on the PPLC board are displeased that their representation is being replaced with staff from county and municipal governments.
County Commissioners approved the interlocal agreement Sept. 17 with a 5-1 vote. Commissioner Norm Roche voted no. The commission also approved the agreement on behalf of East Lake and Palm Harbor libraries located in unincorporated Pinellas.
Commission Chair Ken Welch was absent. His father, Dr. David Welch, died Sept. 16.
For the past two years, the PPLC has been working with county staff and member-library municipalities to come up with a new interlocal agreement. The municipalities have signed off on a new agreement. The last on the list to approve were the county, Palm Harbor and East Lake. The current agreement expires Sept. 30.
Assistant County Administrator Mark Woodard went over the changes between the old and new agreements. One change is that East Lake Community Library is now a full member, instead of being a unit of Palm Harbor’s library.
The new agreement will be for five years, not 10, and requires a review in three years. Woodard said the mission of libraries is changing rapidly with the popularity of e-books and other technology.
“We want to come back sooner to discuss changes and their impact,” he said.
Earmarking of 5 percent of funds to administrative costs and 5 percent for capital projects is gone from the new agreement. Woodard said eliminating earmarks would allow great flexibility with the budget.
Most of the controversy came from a change to the nine-member board which now will be made up of two members appointed by the county commission, three members of the county’s administrative staff and four from city manager’s staff.
The cities are St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Largo and Pinellas Park. There was some objection to permanent representation from those cities in lieu of having revolving membership between all municipal member libraries.
Marcus Harrison, Palm Harbor Community Service Agency’s vice-chairman, brought up concerns that the final interlocal agreement might have been brokered outside the Sunshine Law. He said the new board was set up to circumvent the Sunshine Law.
“The county administrator negotiated with city managers in private meetings,” he said. “This was not vetted by citizens.”
Harrison complained that prior to May or June a PPLC committee had been involved in creating a new agreement, which was done in public meetings. He said citizens were not informed about the change to make a volunteer board into a staff board.
“Why change an existing model which has worked,” he said.
Harrison said the PPLC’s executive director was resigning.
“And her assistant has resigned. They don’t want to work with the new board,” he said.
Commissioner Karen Seel sent her regrets to Mary Brown, longtime PPLC executive director, and thanked her for her many years of hard work.
“I’m sorry Mary Brown is leaving. She’s done good work,” Seel said. “Best wishes to her.”
Cecilia Burke, one of the commission’s three current appointees to the PPLC board, had questions about the changes.
“I’ve enjoyed serving on the board,” she said. “We are an active board.”
She talked about some of the volunteer work she had done at local libraries as a member of the board.
“I want the best for libraries in Pinellas, but for the last couple months, we’ve been out of the loop,” she said. “Our questions have gone unanswered.”
She said being “locked out of the process” had led to frustration and anger. She is concerned about the programs administered by the PPLC, such as deaf literacy and the talking library.
Roche agreed with the speakers that the new agreement made too many changes. He made a motion to amend it to allow more representation from the public and put back the 5 percent earmark for capital projects. The motion died due to a lack of a second.
Commissioner Charlie Justice said he didn’t think the commission had received a good explanation about the financials. He made a motion to change the board to give the county three public appointees plus the two members from the county administrator’s staff.
Woodard cautioned that any changes made to the agreement would mean having to go back to the cities.
“The deadline’s looming,” Woodard said.
“I withdraw my motion with frustration,” Justice said.
“Let’s move ahead with the model and board appointments,” Seel said, adding that an amendment to the agreement on the county’s appointees and staff members could be made in the future, if needed.
“We’ve got a lot work to do with the director and assistant director leaving,” Commissioner Susan Latvala said.
Seel said it was important that the transition to a new board be made in an orderly fashion and that the PPLC’s current programs be maintained, so “we don’t lose momentum.”
“This needs to be done in a seamless way,” Seel said.