In an apparent attempt to politicize the city's public library, the mayor of Calumet City, Ill., has wrested control of the library board, much to the anger of many residents, in order to take the library's $1-million reserve fund and place it in the city's coffers.
Patricia Pelkey, an ousted member of the library board, told American Libraries that Mayor Jerry Genova, who's been in office 19 months, began meddling with the library last spring when he discovered that the library possessed a $1-million reserve fund. This fund, according to Pelkey, consisted of the money left over from the construction of a new library building that opened in December 1985. The board was saving it for future automation updates, but recently dipped into it to purchase furnishings and to pay for major library repairs, reducing it to 800,000.
Calling the surplus "government run amok," Genova charged that the library used excessive taxation and that the board was not accountable to the public. According to Pelkey, Genova told the library trustees that he was taking over the library to run it properly. At that time he latched onto a proposal the board was studying to increase its property tax levy, using it as an example of how the board was not accountable to the public. Pelkey told AL that the board was considering the increase in light of a looming countywide tax cap, adding that Calumet City PL has one of the lowest tax rates in the surrounding Chicago suburbs.
In November, Genova fired four library employees, including one who had been with the library for 20 years, for violating the city's new residency requirement. However, the library board refused to comply, stating that under Illinois statute the library is completely autonomous from the city and exempt from its hiring and firing rules. The city later revoked the firings.
On Nov. 30 the board presented a plan in response to the mayor's concerns over accountability. According to Pelkey, the board proposed to convert the library to an autonomous district that would levy its own taxes and elect its own board. The Dec. 1 Hammond Times quoted Pelkey as saying the creation of the library district would "take the pressure off" the library from the city and "make the library directly accountable to the public." Pelkey said that most of the aldermen in attendance seemed favorable to the idea but the next day Genova, who was unable to attend the meeting, said he would veto any attempt to create an autonomous taxing district.
A few days later, Genova filled three vacancies on the board with his allies, whom he described as "ideologically in line" with him. The new appointments mean that all eight people on the board have been appointed by Genova. He announced that he will ask the new board to adopt policies of fiscal austerity, property tax abatement, and residency in hiring of employees.
After a flurry of newspaper articles, two critical editorials, and a very unflattering editorial cartoon, Genova backed off from his demand for the $1-million reserve fund, announcing that he wanted to rebate $500,000 of it to Calumet City taxpayers. But many residents are refusing to be bought off. According. to the Times, approximately 100 angry residents attended a town hall meeting Dec. 19 to tell Genova the library is no place for politics.
When contacted, Genova refused to talk to AL. In addition, Pelkey told AL that the mayor has warned library employees that if they talk to the press they will be terminated.
In a letter to the editor, Pelkey predicted that if the mayor continues to politicize the library, the library will eventually decline and die. She reminded Calumet City residents of a local newpaper columnist's words: "The quality of cities rests on the quality of libraries."
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