Toronto Public Library’s board voted to close the Urban Affairs Library at a meeting Tuesday night. They did it not because the majority of them thought shuttering the branch, located in Metro Hall, was a good idea, but because their legal counsel told them they didn’t have a choice.
First, some background on the months of wrangling that got us here. The idea to close the UAL in order to shave money off TPL’s 2011 operating budget was first floated by library staff in January. Closing the library was one of several budget cuts recommended by City Librarian Jane Pyper’s office (the city librarian is, essentially, TPL’s CEO) as a means of bringing the library’s monetary requirements in line with the city manager’s request for spending reductions—a request enthusiastically backed by Mayor Ford.
The board, consisting of five city councillors and eight citizen members, didn’t approve the closure in January, and instead asked the City for an 2.6% increase over TPL’s 2010 budget, which would still have been significantly less than the 3.6% increase TPL staff said would be needed to keep the system operating at its current service levels.
The 2.6% increase went to city council’s budget committee, who reduced it to 2%. At its February meeting, the TPL board voted to increase that amount to 2.06%—the extra .06% being the amount of money necessary to keep the UAL open in 2011. It would have amounted to about a hundred thousand dollars.
At its February 10 meeting, budget committee again insisted upon a 2% increase. City council gave final approval to the 2% increase at its February 24 meeting, but not before Councillor and TPL Board Member Sarah Doucette (Ward 13, Parkdale-High Park) made a last-ditch attempt to ensure funding for the UAL: she tabled a motion asking council to amend the City’s 2011 operating budget to include money both for the UAL and for TPL’s collections budget, which is also underfunded this year. The motion failed.
Prior to the TPL board’s March meeting, some members thought it would be possible for them to avoid closing the UAL by voting to find equivalent savings from yet-to-be-determined places in TPL’s budget. We thought so, too. The City’s agencies, boards, commissions, and corporations usually do their own budgeting, and TPL has had so-called “unallocated cuts” on the books in previous years. Given the fact that the board had already rejected closing the UAL on two separate occasions, the odds on the branch’s salvation seemed good.
At Tuesday’s meeting, citizen board member Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler, who has been the staunchest advocate for keeping the UAL open, tabled the expected motion to find the hundred thousand dollars in savings in unallocated cuts, allowing the UAL to keep operating through 2011.
And here’s where things get interesting. TPL board Chair Matthew Church ruled the motion out of order—basically the parliamentary equivalent of a referee calling a foul.
Church had voted in support of the UAL on those two previous occasions. The reason he threw out the motion was, for him, not political. The board had received a legal opinion from somewhere, to the effect that, because city council had voted on TPL’s budget, it was now legally impossible for the TPL board to reallocate their subsidy from the City to fund the UAL.
The whole dispute came down to a particular section in the provincial Public Libraries Act, which Church’s legal advisor had interpreted to mean that the TPL board was powerless to do anything but adopt their budget as approved by council.
There was some discussion among board members, both during and after the meeting, as to whether Doucette’s motion before city council, by forcing the City to rule specifically on the UAL, might, perversely, have been the cause of the conflict. If not for the motion, city council would only have approved a sum of money for TPL’s operations, without ever addressing the question of whether the UAL could stay open. It’s possible that TPL would have been free to allocate money to the UAL if city council hadn’t already weighed in.
We questioned the City clerk’s office about this, and were referred to Strategic Communications, the City’s media-relations arm. After two full days of waiting, we got an email from a spokesperson saying not much more than this:
“This is a hypothetical question. To answer this question an analysis of the content of the budget and the process by which City Council determined the Library Board’s budget would have to be done.”
Which is a long way of saying: “We don’t know.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, faced with no alternative, the TPL board voted on a budget that contained no funding for the UAL. The vote came to a 6–6 tie, with councillors Sarah Doucette and Janet Davis (Ward 31, Beaches-East York) voting against the budget (and hence, against the closure) and Cesar Palacio (Ward 17, Davenport), Jaye Robinson (Ward 25, Don Valley West), and Paul Ainslie (Ward 43, Scarborough East) voting in favour. The tie meant that the budget had been defeated, in apparent contravention of the Public Libraries Act, which states that a council-approved budget “shall be adopted by the board.”
There were a few awkward moments of stammering speeches. Citizen board member Kathy Gallagher Ross’ voice trembled as she warned the room of what she perceived as the consequences of defying the mayor:
“I just think we must think about the library. We must think about what’s going to happen next year, and think about what we have already done by putting oursevles in conflict with the mayor, and the mayor’s office and the mayor’s policies.” she said. “I think we are sabotaging what we love in the library by not being more careful.”
The board voted to reopen the matter, and passed the budget, with a minor amendment.
Church closed the meeting with a personal observation: “It’s not the longest agenda we’ve had, and it’s not the longest session we’ve had, but it is the most difficult that I’ve been a part of.”
And that’s how the UAL got shut down without cooperation from the majority of TPL’s board. When the time comes to deal with 2012’s budget, we’ll see if this same drama plays out elsewhere.