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Council Lifts Policy, Names Watts Library for Volunteer

Activism: Lawmakers bypass $1-million donation rule to honor Alma Reaves Woods for lifetime of work.


Evoking exuberant applause and a couple of heartfelt "amens" from the audience, the Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday named the new Watts branch library after a local volunteer, making an exception to a city policy that reserves that honor for donors of $1 million or more.

In honoring Alma Reaves Woods, known in her community as "the lady who built the library" for four decades of activism, several lawmakers also called for gutting the million-dollar policy--a rule the council endorsed just a year ago.

"What hypocrites! Better late than never. This policy should never have been put on the books in the first place," Councilman Nate Holden, who voted against the measure last year, said as his colleagues rose one after the other to endorse Woods. "This is just a clear example of how out of step we are with the public. We should be leading you, but instead we're following."

But Woods, who did not attend Tuesday's council session, showed no bitterness over the incident, crying out in joy when a council member telephoned with the news after the vote.

"I don't think I'll even sleep tonight, I'm so excited. I could walk from here to Pasadena," Woods said later in a telephone interview. "I am just delighted and gratified that others saw what we had tried to do, recognized it, appreciated it. I can just barely contain myself."

After a Times article Sunday highlighting the Library Commission's refusal last week to consider naming the branch for Woods until it completes a broader review of the naming guidelines, scores of Watts residents went to City Hall to urge the council to override that decision in time for Saturday's grand opening of the $3-million facility. They held up homemade signs with hearts under Woods' name, and clapped practically every time she was mentioned.

"She has given over $1 million of her time and energy," said Ann Miller, a member of Friends of the Watts Library, which sells cookies, clothes and books to raise funds. "You have the power to bring about the change."

Indeed, the council utilized its rarely invoked authority to remove jurisdiction from any of the city's 40 civilian commissions in order to honor Woods. Further, while the Library Commission is already conducting a study of its naming policies--the one-year agreement to enforce the million-dollar provision recently expired--Councilwoman Rita Walters introduced a motion Tuesday asking the council to supersede that move as well and write its own guidelines for naming all public buildings that would serve a wider group of potential honorees.

"We have to . . . dispel the erroneous impression that the names of city facilities are for sale to the highest bidder," wrote Walters, who supported the million-dollar policy last year as a means of raising funds for the libraries. Naming "should be based on appropriate reasons such as the achievements, service and contributions of the individual. It should not be based solely on dollars paid."

Mayor Richard Riordan said Tuesday that he supports naming the Watts branch for Woods, and said each instance should be reviewed on "an ad hoc basis." Regarding the broader policy question, the mayor said the council should back off until the commission, which he appointed, finishes its review.

"We have a commission system in the city. They should wait and see what the commission does," Riordan said. "The commission has to balance between sweat, labor and trying to get resources to improve libraries."

The commission announced Monday that it planned to drop the million-dollar policy.

Traditionally, the city has named libraries either for the neighborhoods in which they are located, or after literary or historic figures such as Mark Twain or Pio Pico. In an effort to spur fund-raising, commissioners changed the policy in 1994 so libraries would instead be named for philanthropists who give $1 million (or $2 million for a regional library).

When the council reviewed the policy last May, lawmakers who were fearful of corporate sponsorship added a prohibition on promoting alcohol and tobacco products via libraries. To safeguard against wealthy communities getting the fanciest facilities, they insisted that 25% of the donation go to the specific branch, the rest to the neediest libraries citywide.

But at that time, the question of shutting out people who lack that kind of money got little attention.

"It was shortsighted," said Walters, who heads the committee overseeing libraries. "Hopefully, this time around, the needs of the entire city will be addressed, including heroes who do endless work and usually go unrecognized."

Councilman Rudy Svorinich Jr., who represents Watts and led the charge to name the library for Woods, also voted for the million-dollar policy last year, and continued to say Tuesday that the monetary contributions should remain one of several criteria for honorees.

"Probably at that time we should have given it a little more thought," he said.

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