Reacting to an unsatisfying resolution with the King County Library System (KCLS), City Council on Monday, July 7, created a Library Advisory Board to force continued dialogue about the library remodel.
The remodel touched off heated discussion earlier this year when the public first reviewed updated design plans for the space. Many felt the renovations didn't fit the character of the library or its users and weren't productive change. The board would hardly be the first of its kind on the Island.
The library was annexed by KCLS in 1991 and agreed to forming a board under a signed inter-local agreement, which gave the group the power to consult on all aspects of operation. Between the 1980s and 1990s City Council consulted a similar board and between 1994 and 1996 KCLS collaborated with it. That board was disbanded in the 1990s as other city issues took precedence.
A number of Islanders spoke in favor of the board in the comment period of the meeting.
“This isn’t a panacea,” said Councilmember Benson Wong, a member of the Library Committee. “This is just one thing in our tool kit that is available to us. Hopefully this will provide a more formal mechanism for a continued dialogue.”
Deputy Mayor Dan Grausz said that while the Library Committee had worked with KCLS on a number of significant changes, when it presented points on four additional matters, KCLS balked. The committee asked to retain the external book drop and to add a second study room. It also requested continued dialogue about the children’s area on design points like the number of entrances and the height of bookshelves. Finally, it asked that KCLS consult with the committee about the look and feel of the renovated space as renovation advanced.
“We needed to take another step,” said Grauz. “And the only step left to us that was an obvious one, was creating a Library Board.”
The city would sunset the board on December 31 of 2016 and formally appointed the nine members of the ad hoc advisory board from earlier in the year. Wong said that fixed timeframe would allow input past construction without requiring that members commit more than they’d signed on for. Before the end of 2016, the city would determine if the board should continue to operate.
KCLS, which has been battle-hardened by similarly contentious renovation projects in other cities, wouldn’t have to heed the board’s advice, but would be obligated to at least consult the board. Mercer Island staff challenge that, claiming it has more authority than existing boards in other cities.
During discussion, Councilmember Mike Cero asked what other tools might be available to the city. Grausz noted that under the inter-local agreement, the Island could de-annex from KCLS. Cero asked if withholding permitting was feasible.
“That would be highly illegal,” said Kirsten Taylor with the city. “So, no.”
The city can’t use permitting to leverage a compromise on the library remodel. Council also briefly entertained the idea of de-annexing from KCLS but the idea was largely shot down. Grausz pointed out that the city would have to buy back the building -- presumably at fair market value -- and would have to create its own library system. KCLS has also asserted that if the city went down that path it would have to continue paying bond obligations for the next ten years.
“What I heard from the community loud and clear is that we need to take every and all steps to address the library remodel,” said Representative Tana Senn, “and this is a tool at our disposal...We have some great representation [already] from a diverse group of people in the community who were very involved in this.”