By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The future of the Sonoma County Library and possibly its controversial director are on the line as momentum builds for revising the library’s operating agreement with the county and nine cities.
County officials and several city managers are pushing to form a committee that will consider revisions to the library’s joint powers agreement, which was enacted in 1975 to consolidate library operations and provide funding for the system through property taxes.
County Supervisor Mike McGuire, who is spearheading the review, said he is seeking a more collaborative relationship with the library, the cities and the county.
McGuire has criticized Library Director Sandy Cooper, telling her during a budget hearing in June that he felt the library system has been operating “like an island.”
Cooper also was the subject of a scathing county grand jury report released the day after the budget hearing that called her an “unresponsive” leader who “undermines the spirit” of the joint powers agreement.
McGuire said this week that the library review is not aimed at relieving Cooper of her duties.
“This is not about a specific personality,” he said. “Whoever is sitting in that director’s seat, we want to have a collaborative relationship in the long-term.”
But Julia Freis, chairwoman of the library commission, warned about the possible “unintended consequences” of such an undertaking. She said she’s concerned the library could lose its protected funding status or be subjected to increased political pressure depending on the outcome of the committee’s work.
“I am not clear on what the problem they think changing the JPA would fix,” Freis said.
County supervisors in March directed staff to review library operations and to return with recommendations for improvement. That has fueled speculation that supervisors are seeking more direct control of library functions, including the ability to hire or fire the director.
Supervisors currently have limited budget authority over the library system, which receives most of its funding through a share of property taxes that are deposited into a fund specific to the library’s needs. The formula, which last fiscal year amounted to about 2.25 percent of one percent of the tax levy, was set in 1978 with the implementation of Proposition 13, according to Erick Roeser, the county’s property tax manager.
The seven-member commission is in charge of spending the money. Its members are appointed by county supervisors and by officials in the cities of Santa Rosa and Petaluma.
The library’s current system of governance has elicited praise for giving patrons across Sonoma County equal access to the library system. But it’s also fueled complaints that decisions are made without enough consultation with the library’s partners, particularly those in smaller communities.
Cooper and the library commission have borne the brunt of these concerns. The basic premise of the grand jury’s report was that Cooper rules by fiat with the commission going along with whatever she wants.
That view was contested in the commission’s draft response to the grand jury. Freis said the response should be finalized at the commission’s next meeting in September. She also reiterated her support for Cooper.
In an Aug. 8 letter to the Sonoma County Mayors’ and Councilmembers Association, County Administrator Veronica Ferguson and four city managers expressed support for revising the library’s operating agreement so that it “best fosters representation and accountability countywide.”
Sonoma City Manager Linda Kelly, who drafted the letter, said there is no way for the city to know if it is paying its fair share for maintenance and operation of its library building, which the city leases from the county library.
The West Napa Street facility recently underwent a $2.4 million renovation, the bulk of it paid for with redevelopment funds authorized by Sonoma city leaders.
Kelly said the renovations included energy-saving upgrades such as a new “cool” roof and heating and air conditioning systems. But she said any potential savings that result from those improvements will be shared with other communities under the current terms of the joint powers agreement.
“I’d like to see that return on the city’s investment go to our residents,” Kelly said.
She said she’d also like to explore whether Sonoma and other communities should have more of a say in the library’s decision-making process.
The review committee will include one representative each from all nine cities, the county, the board of supervisors and the library commission. It is expected to begin working in October and have recommendations by the end of the year.
Any amendments to the library’s operating agreement require the unanimous consent of the county and the cities of Santa Rosa, Healdsburg, Petaluma and Sonoma, which were the original signatories to the 1975 document, according to Kathy Larocque, deputy county counsel.