Outsourcing, privatization and a public trust

It's still hard to completely absorb: our own Ashland Library has been closed all these many months, through spring and now the waning days of summer. Residents shake their heads and mutter, insisting they still can't believe it. Think of it. Our library...all those libraries...15 in total... locked.

It's a reality that bespeaks of priorities turned upside down, and of our failure to ask a fundamental question: Why do we have libraries? What do they mean to us and to the life of our community? Are they not the repositories of our democratic values, symbols of our cornerstone belief in the free and open exchange of ideas, places embedded with the conviction that all knowledge is valuable and all opinions have merit? Have we lost sight of the fact that an informed citizenry is essential to the discourse of our republic?

"Libraries are part of our 'commons,' part of what makes us a democratic society," wrote Anne Billeter, former Jackson County Library Services Children's, Young Adult, and South Regional Manager, in an e-mail to the Tidings. "Libraries provide neutral access to information on every subject under the sun from every possible viewpoint. Libraries provide access to information that helps people make informed decision. Libraries protect our intellectual freedom."

Recent letters and public comments say some folks are not sure they could live in place that doesn't have a library.

We have often over these past few months asked the simple question: "Why?" And hearing a cobbled together tale of absent timber funds, Iraq, politics, county unpreparedness, we shake our heads and say, "Now what?"

The "Now what?" has been answered by the county commissioners, at least for now. The answer is a solution that has generated robust, even hopeful debate, as well as outright anger.

We have come to learn the county commissioners have all but finalized a contract with Library Systems Services, LLC, a Maryland-based, privately owned company that will run the Jackson County libraries for $4.3 million annually with reduced weekly hours &

Ashland has been allocated 24. During a special meeting last week, the Ashland city council voted to join the county with the provision that should Ashland's Measure 15-79 pass, the monies generated will be used solely to expand the truncated services, bringing the library as close as possible to a pre-April baseline.

The concern, of course, is that to turn over a public trust &

the remarkable county-wide system of symbiotic libraries &

to a private enterprise, which has a core mission of turning a profit, will change the very essence of what it means to have a library that first serves the people.

Patricia Glass Schuman wrote in the Library Journal (vol. 123), "Public libraries, by their very nature, are classic 'market failures' &

as are highways, schools, police, firefighters, and national defense and security. They are not profitable activities that a free market place will support. Privatization is not a mere management tool; it is a grave public policy shift. Privatization advocates must be challenged. If the core democratic values of libraries are glossed over in the name of efficiency, economy, and creative management, how will the public interest be served?"

LSSI operating the county's libraries is not "privatization"; rather, it is more accurately defined as "outsourcing" because ownership of the buildings and the collections, and the right to make policy will be retained by the county.

Outsourcing is when a company, or in this case a public body, contracts out jobs or services, such as when a small business uses an accountant to do its taxes. Privitazation, on the other hand, is defined as, "transfer from public or government control or ownership to private enterprise."

LSSI could not, for example, charge groups to use the meeting rooms without approval of the Board of Commissioners in a public hearing.

Many who care about the Ashland Library, such as Friends of the Library and former library staff, who have worked tirelessly to open the doors, are deeply conflicted about this crossroads moment. As difficult as it might be to contemplate the LSSI take over, it is more difficult knowing that the doors remain closed. And so it is a painful bargain that has been struck wherein the doors will open and patrons will once again return, but down a divergent road of private management.

"I believe libraries could use a healthy infusion of the kind of entrepreneurial thinking and decision-making that can come from a business model type of management," wrote John Sexton, Ashland's former Young Adult Librarian, in an e-mail to the Tidings. "I simply need more information at this point about how a private, for-profit management company can provide that model and protect the public in public library.

"The libraries are closed," Sexton pointed out, "not because of mismanagement, but because of a political decision based on the inability of the county to address ongoing funding issues that were far bigger than the libraries."

In fact, the numbers demonstrate that our libraries have delivered a superb county-wide program, coming in under budget while expanding the system.

Had Ashland's City Council decided to "Go it Alone," one of four options contemplated, or chosen the "Hybrid Option," the separation (both legal and physical, e.g., who owns the building and the collection?) from the county might have been protracted and the library likely would have remained closed in the interim.

"I believe that the option the City Council chose Monday was the best option for the city," wrote Billeter. "Augmenting the county's contract with LSSI will meet the intent of the City Council when it placed the library levy on the Sept. 18 ballot: It will get the Ashland Library open as soon as possible, at as close to the services and hours it had before the April closure. The other proposals were either too complex, unworkable, or would have provided an insufficient level of library services and hours."

Of course, no one knows how this will work out. Not really. Government has "outsourced" to private companies for decades, and the results have been decidedly mixed: cost overruns, maleficence, fraud as well as some success stories. There is also the issue of transparency. Will LSSI open its books to the community in keeping with applicable "sunshine laws?"

Reports have filtered up to Ashland from Riverside, Calif., where LSSI operates the Riverside County Library System. Jan Kuebel, manager of the Riverside Garden Home Branch, wrote in an e-mail to Ashland resident Maureen Battistella, "LSSI is transparent but 100 percent supportive. I absolutely love it. Customer satisfaction is what LSSI concentrates on. I know for Riverside County we are far better off." Battistella wrote, "Frankly, I think Ashland would fit this entrepreneurial model very well and the staff find a more receptive and responsive administration than they might have had before."

First the passage of Measure 15-79. Then the compatibility of Ashland and LSSI can be assessed. As well, the city council has promised close and diligent oversight. "Go it Alone" is now the road not taken.

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