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Commission to blame for library controversy

Opinion column

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

Don't confront me with my failures, I had not forgotten them.

-- Jackson Browne

As the Dougherty County Commission prepares to make a for-now final decision Monday on its Library Board's request to provide funds to re-open one of two library branches closed a half-year ago because the system couldn't afford to keep five branches open, commissioners should keep one thing in mind.

This uneasy mess they're facing is one of their own making.

Taking a public beating after the Library Board, then an impressive collection of apolitical intellectuals, announced it had decided on the lesser of two evils in closing the underused Westtown and Southside branches rather than risk shutting down the entire system, some members of the commission took the unfortunate tack of deflecting criticism by claiming they "did not know anything about the Library Board's decision until after they'd made it."

Blasted by some angry citizens for what they saw as an admission of ineffectual leadership, some embarrassed commissioners aggressively pushed for -- and eventually placed -- one of their own on the seven-member Library Board. That the county selected District 2 Commissioner John Hayes as its representative spoke volumes to the sitting members of the Library Board.

The situation escalated when the board's chairman, the highly-respected and -qualified Guy Craft, announced in the wake of the commission's action that he was stepping down "for health reasons." Board member Thomas Stonecypher quickly followed suit, and with Hayes' appointment knocking attorney Gene Black off the board, suddenly it had a whole new look.

Craft, who had 51 years in library experience, said all the right things publicly when he stepped down, but he and Hayes had sparred openly in commission meetings leading up to his resignation, and some associated with the board said Craft felt betrayed by the commission's actions.

Hayes probably had no way of knowing at the time of his appointment that he would soon be forced to make a series of no-win decisions. He had openly championed re-opening one or both of the library branches that had been closed, but he is also one of three members of the commission's Finance Committee tasked with recommending a budget in tight economic times.

That committee, and the entire commission, was still stinging from criticism surrounding its decision during Fiscal Year 2013 budget negotiations to raise the millage rate in the county's so-called special tax district as a means of financing costly fire and police protection.

And when the Library Board started talking about asking for more money -- despite being one of the few county departments to see a budget increase in the proposed FY 2014 budget -- to open one of the closed branches, Hayes had the added dilemma of representing the district in which one of the branches (Southside) is located. He diplomatically refrained from advocating for the Southside branch when the board was asked to make a recommendation on which branch to open, but he's pointed out several times that his constituents have been clamoring for just such advocacy.

To further muddle a situation that was already opaque, District 5 Commissioner Gloria Gaines -- who had pushed hard to have a commission member on the Library Board -- indicated at Friday's Finance Committee/Library Board meeting that even though usage numbers provided by library officials showed much greater community participation at the Central, Tallulah Massey and Westside branches, the comparably smaller amount of money requested by interim Library Director Mike Dugan to re-open one of the two smaller branches was evidence that "it cost more per capita" to operate the more utilized branches and that figures showed "that it was actually more economically feasible to close the Westside branch."

Library Board Chairman Walter Kelley explained that the funding needed to re-open either the Westtown or Southside branch did not take into account management and other costs and functions that the still-open branches had absorbed. When Gaines persisted, Kelley diplomatically said, "That's one way of looking at it."

In a perfect world, there's no way the county's library system would be such a headache for the Dougherty Commission during budget time. With the tiniest bit of communication, even a tough decision like the branch closings would not have had such an impact. Probably some kind of joint commission/Library Board announcement would have been easier all around on everyone's egos, and life would have gone on.

But the situation has devolved into one of those silly contests that no one ever wins. Conversely, there are losers enough to go around, chief among them -- the citizens in the county who just want to check out and read a book.

Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcheralbanyherald.com.