MONTEREY PARK — Friends of the Library of Monterey Park and three former library board members have filed a lawsuit accusing the City Council of violating state law by replacing the library board with an advisory commission.
The lawsuit, filed last week in Los Angeles Superior Court, contends that the state Education Code requires the city library to be operated by a board with managerial powers, including the right to appoint the city librarian. The City Council, by a 3-2 vote in October, replaced the library board with a commission with purely advisory powers and transferred authority to hire the librarian to the city manager.
Although both the board and the commission were appointed by the City Council, the board could act independently, while the commission can only make recommendations to the council.
Councilman Barry L. Hatch, who initiated the change, said it was taken to bring library expenditures, which amount to $1 million a year, under closer scrutiny by the council and the public.
"My only concern was that that there was a million dollars--a hefty amount of money--in the hands of a few who had total control over it," he said.
This concern was intensified, Hatch said, when he learned that the library had maintained separate bank accounts outside the normal financial controls of the city and had used $4,000 from one of those funds to pay for a fund-raising dinner after the city finance office had rejected the expenditure.
Ethel Matsunaga, a former library board member who is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the separate accounts did not contain tax funds--only gifts by individuals to the library. Although David Bentz, who heads the city finance office and is interim city manager, said he was unaware of the accounts until he was given records of the retired city librarian last June, Matsunaga said the accounts were never a secret. "There was no intent to hide anything," she said.
J. Craig Fong, an attorney with the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, which represents the plaintiffs, said there is no evidence that funds were mishandled. But if there was such evidence, he said, there is a process to investigate and deal with suspicions of misconduct without disbanding the library board.
Ruth Willner, past president of Friends of the Library, a nonprofit association of library supporters, said the fund issue is simply "a red herring."
Willner said the City Council has acted illegally and has opened the door to politicizing the library. She said the founders of the library specified that it be "managed by a library board, not an advisory board, so it would not become a political football."
Matsunaga said: "There is a concern that (the library) might become a political issue if it is controlled by the City Council. There has been a rash of book bannings throughout the country. And it is on the rise."
But Hatch said the council does not intend to involve itself in book selection.
"The City Council doesn't have the time or interest to decide what books will go in there," Hatch said. "We're not going to spend our time looking at the list of books the library is going to purchase and cancel this book or that book. That isn't even close to what we have in mind."
Nor, Hatch said, is he interested in changing library policies on foreign-language books, even though he has pushed for the establishment of English as the nation's official language. Hatch said the library needs foreign-language books to serve residents who cannot read English. More than half the city's residents are Asian, and many are recent immigrants. Hatch said the foreign-language collection, which comprises 6,000 of the library's 145,000 volumes, "is not a concern."
Joining with the Friends of the Library and Matsunaga as plaintiffs in the suit are Carolyn Zook, the only library board member who was named to the library commission, and Francisco M. Alonso, who was appointed to the library board about six months before the council decided to replace it.
Alonso said the council's decision was inexplicable. "In view of the fact that the library was running so smoothly," he said, "I question why fix something that isn't broken. Everyone says it's a great library. There is no reason I can see to change the structure of the library."
When the City Council voted to replace the library board with a commission three months ago, Stephanie Scher, assistant city attorney, pointed out that the state Education Code and the state Government Code have conflicting provisions. The Education Code provides for the creation of library boards with management authority. The Government Code authorizes library commissions as advisory agencies to city councils.
Scher said the intent of the Legislature was to give cities the option of using either system. But Fong said libraries in cities such as Monterey Park, which derive their powers from state law rather than from their own charters, must be run by administrative boards.
Both attorneys said there has apparently never been a California appellate court ruling on the issue. Fong said he will seek a hearing on his request for a court order to reinstate the library board within three weeks.
Meanwhile, the City Council has appointed a new library commission, and Bentz has announced that he has appointed a new librarian, Elizabeth Minter, who is from Iowa and formerly administered a regional system with 23 libraries. She will begin work in Monterey Park on Feb. 22.