By my count there were about 109 committee recommendations for discussion at Monday night's council meeting plus a motion of which notice was given, plus a couple of emergent motions. A few were passed without debate but it took two hours to discuss three items before the dinner break. But worse was to come.
The dinner break was a short one, starting after 7:00 p.m. with a commitment to reassemble at 7:30 for a timed item dealing with the planned closure of the Glanworth Library. Already, members of the public were arriving to witness the discussion. Apparently, a bus had been chartered to fill the gallery. No time for a meal, so I made a quick stop at the Marble Slab on Richmond Street. Peanut butter and dark chocolate ice cream mixed with some pecans. Mmmm! Yum. Then back to city hall and a public gallery filled with men and women, young and old, and children and teenagers, too, holding signs reading “Don’t close the book on Glanworth.”
I served on the London Public Library for the four years that I was on council. Each year at budget time, we’d crunch the numbers and try to find ways to make the dollars go a little further and cut back where we could. Invariably, the subject of branch closures would be raised and just as hastily abandoned. People love their libraries even if they don’t visit them often.
The Glanworth library is housed in a priority 2 heritage building, built in 1923 with money raised by the community. Forty years later it joined the Middlesex Library Board and then was acquired by the London Public Library (LPL) as part of the 1993 annexation. It’s a small building, only 320 square feet, and badly in need of repairs and upgrades including a new roof, a door that can accommodate a wheel chair, a ramp, a bathroom (there is none at present), and a second access/egress. Costs are likely to exceed $250,000, especially since these are retrofits to a heritage building.
Currently, the library is open two days a week for two hours each time. The hours are limited in part by the lack of washroom facilities. The staffing and maintenance costs are $12,000 per year. At last count, there were 47 card carrying library members, only 27 of whom reside in London. The remaining 20 send their property taxes to Elgin County where they reside. The second nearest library branch is in White Oaks, a few miles away, but there is no bus service available to Glanworth residents.
Ward 14 Councillor Sandy White, who represents Glanworth although she resides in another ward, was in her glory. She spoke to her motion that the LPL Board report to the Community and Neighbourhoods Committee (CNC) how it made its decision to close the Glanworth branch, the procedures followed, how thoroughly the community was consulted, and what alternatives were explored. Her address was passionate if somewhat incoherent, alleging that the community consultation done was nothing but “a drive-by”, that there were corporations ready to cough up private money but they seemed to have been ignored, that this would never have happened in a ward in the north end of the city. The crowd loved it; they gave her a standing ovation. That sent a message to other members of council.
Nancy Branscombe is serving her second term on the LPL board. She had made the motion at the board to close it down. In a climate of tax freezes, where would the board find the money to meet the building codes to renovate this public building? The board has only $50,000 to spend for renovations for the whole system of 16 libraries! Her remarks were met with stony silence.
But others, especially Councillor Harold Usher, waxed eloquent about the importance of the library and how we had to save it. He got a good round of applause, too.
Not to be outdone, Steve Orser pointed out that Glanworth has nothing, not even a splash pad. Perhaps the council should take over the library board. Glanworth should get something, maybe a community centre. He suggested that staff get out there and look for a piece of land to build on. He wanted Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Jeff Fielding to investigate possible future investments in Glanworth, and report back with options to move forward. He referred to White as the “pitbull on council.” He must have forgotten there are muzzle laws for pitbulls in Ontario when in public.
Apparently he also forgot that Glanworth is a rural settlement outside of the urban growth boundary and that he supported a tax freeze to boot. Memories tend to be short when you are in the limelight. He too got a good, if somewhat bewildered, reception from the gallery.
Matt Brown, also on the LPL board this term, defended the board’s decision citing the accessibility issues, the size and the condition of the building. The board was in the process of consulting with the community on how to continue to deliver services, he pointed out, but you can’t undertake those kinds of alterations on a zero increase budget. “Those who ran [in the election] on zero, have to afford [the board] the opportunity to do so.” No applause there.
Joni Baechler took up the mantra. “We all love our libraries,” she protested, “but city services get cut because boards and commissions don’t come in at zero,” noting that she had not campaigned for a tax freeze. Some who had done so seemed to think that there were pots of money lying around. “I don’t see the pots of money that we’ve got. I’ve been on council for 10 years; there are no pots of money. Don’t look to blame the board; I’m looking to you to tell us where to make the cuts.”
They were supported by both Paul Hubert and Judy Bryant, Hubert pointing out that you can’t have public buildings that aren’t accessible and that have no washrooms. He feared that the actual cost of retrofit would be as much as $400,000 because of its status as a heritage building. He knows whereof he speaks, given his experience with the Antiquities building. Bryant noted that the building is not just a matter of “bricks and mortar”; it has to meet the Ontario Disabilities Act standards.
Paul VanMeerbergen’s contribution was to thank the library board for taking the voters seriously. However, he saw no harm in getting a report back; maybe the board could find some ways to get private money. But he certainly wouldn’t support going to city for money. It was already spending millions on the green bin project, a statement to which Baechler objected since the green bin has not been approved, only a pilot project for which the $100,000 price tag has been in the budget for a couple of years.
Councillor Joe Swan came out in defence of White’s motion. He really couldn’t believe that it would cost $250,000 to upgrade the building. He suggested going to the community and giving it a chance to support and save it. “They could probably build it in a weekend themselves,” he claimed, basing his remarks on the villagers' skill in barn-raising. I’m not sure how well he knows Glanworth and its inhabitants. When I lived there as a child, there were lots of community harvest practices, but I never saw a barn-raising. Mostly, they use professional builders.
Branscombe, on a point of order, noted that the library board does not report to CNC. White, who had submitted the motion, blamed the city clerk whom she had consulted about her motion for the wording. The clerk pointed out that she had assisted with crafting the councillor’s ideas into a motion; she does not advise on the content of a motion. White later clarified that she had not intended to criticize the clerk’s office which has always been very helpful to her.
Then Dale Henderson got in on the debate. He wanted more information. Maybe they could house the library in a church or dance hall. He was sure that “we could find the money for it.”
At this point, CAO Jeff Fielding felt he had to interject. “Deal with this as a library issue,” he pleaded. “Don’t ask us to build something larger.”
Apparently, acting deputy mayor Bud Polhill did not hear this request. Noting that it would cost too much money to save that building, he urged that the city “build something newer, larger.”
By now, nearly two hours had elapsed. It was time to get down to business. The motion didn’t cut it. White wondered what to do.
Fielding offered a way out. “Ask the library board to stand down until they have had a chance to consult the community,” he suggested. “Then they can report the results of their consultation to Service Review Committee (SRC).” In regard to the motion on the floor he advised, “Chuck what is there. Then Services Review can report back to council.”
White agreed to use Fielding’s motion which, as Fielding pointed out, meant voting against the whole original motion and then introducing Fielding’s.
So that is what they did. As Polhill observed, this was probably the first time ever that a motion brought forward by a councillor was defeated unanimously.
Following the vote, library board chair Josh Morgan noted that consultations with the community were already underway and delegations would be coming forward at the September meeting.
But what’s a couple of hours in the longest night?
Still more to come.