The Monterey Park City Council overstepped its authority when it replaced the city library board with a less powerful advisory commission, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge has ruled.
Judge Ricardo A. Torres, in a decision Monday that the state's chief librarian called significant for communities throughout California, ordered the council to reinstate the board. In their lawsuit, the Friends of the Library of Monterey Park and three ousted board members had complained that the changes would make the library susceptible to political interference, threaten its administration and perhaps influence book selection.
The council agreed on a 3-2 vote last October to make the changes at the urging of Councilman Barry L. Hatch, who argued that the council, the city manager and the public needed more control over the library and the $1 million the city allocates to it annually.
The difference between the two library governing bodies was the amount of power the council granted them. The advisory commission could only make recommendations to the council, while the previous board had the authority to hire the librarian and oversee management of the library. In both cases, the council controlled the overall amount of city funds allocated to the library.
"I thought it was a great victory . . . for everyone (who) uses the library and a victory for those (who) believe in having a buffer between the politics that sometimes affects the City Council and the library system," said Michael Eng, who was president of the board when it was ousted.
In praising the judge's decision, Gary E. Strong, the state's chief librarian, said the case has statewide implications. He said that in at least one other community, Calexico, there was a unsuccessful attempt to oust the library board in much the same manner as in Monterey Park. Officials in several other cities were watching the Monterey Park case closely, he said.
"I would hope that city officials would look very cautiously before they move to replace their library boards," Strong said.
Hatch said he was saddened by the decision but is still looking at ways to "stiffen the guidelines" that govern the library board.
Earlier this year, Hatch noted that the library had a separate bank account that was not subject to the same financial controls as other city departments. He also criticized the use of $4,000 from the account to pay for a fund-raising dinner for the library after the city's finance office had rejected the expenditure.
But library board members said that the money spent on the dinner came from private donations, not city funds, and that there was nothing improper about the way library finances were being handled.
Hatch and other city officials said the city has not decided whether to appeal the judge's ruling. That decision, according to Assistant City Solicitor Stephanie Scher, probably will not be made until the May 23 council meeting.
Eng, an attorney, said, "We have never ceased to be legitimate board members," although other city officials had barred the group from holding meetings after the advisory commission was appointed.
"I am going to alert the city librarian and the board of trustees to be prepared to meet as quickly as possible for the board's May meeting," Eng said.
Acting City Manager David Bentz said he hopes that the library board, the advisory commission and other city officials can get together soon to ensure a smooth transition.
J. Craig Fong, who represented the Friends of the Library, a nonprofit, private group, and the three board members who sued, said: "There was a feeling that the City Council wanted to get rid of the board because some of the members had too active a voice, too loud a voice."
Hatch said he wanted to oust the board and create the advisory commission because the board was not fair, open or nonpolitical in its approach.
Saying "there is an ugly side to this mess," Hatch complained about "political involvements" of library board members and specifically criticized Eng. "They were so involved in politics that they didn't have time to deal with the library," he said.
Hatch particularly noted Eng's public opposition to a resolution supporting the designation of English as the nation's official language, an idea advocated locally by Hatch. In 1986, the City Council voted in favor of the resolution but later rescinded it.
"I'm not saying that's the reason I wanted to change the board," Hatch said. But he said the library board was providing a "very one-sided and very arrogant" type of leadership.
In response, Eng said, "It's unfortunate that Mr. Hatch lets his personal differences with me cloud his views toward the library board." Of the four board members, Eng was the only one who did not sue.