Vocal but vain protest
BY STEVEN WARBURTON
Staff About 60 protesters dejectedly left the Stormont- DundasGlengarry counties council chambers Monday morning after learning that there’s very little council can do to halt the closure of three library branches.
About an hour before the meeting, the demonstrators marched outside the counties building on Pitt Street in Cornwall, waving signs calling for the libraries to remain open and for the resignation of the SD&G Library Board chair, Bill McGimpsey.
Late last month, the board voted 4-3 to close branches in Dalkeith, St. Andrew’s West and Morewood as of Sept. 3. The decision sparked a widespread, and emotional, outcry.
A delegation from each branch urged council Monday to fight for the libraries. But counties CAO T. J. Simpson said that according to a legal opinion, council cannot overrule the library board.
Both North Glengarry council members spoke out against the closures. Deputy- mayor and Counties Warden Jamie MacDonald temporarily left the chair to criticize fellow library board members, denouncing “a last minute meeting that lacked transparency” during the Highland Games weekend. “How can anyone be comfortable with this process?” he asked, slamming the board for not holding a public meeting and for adding the Dalkeith branch to the list of closures about 30 seconds before the meeting began. “Politicians are often criticized for their lack of transparency,” he said, adding that the library board situation was a good example of that.
North Glengarry Mayor Chris McDonell said the board had, at a previous meeting in Williamstown, agreed to hold public consultations before any closures. “That was not done,” he said. “[Counties council] had budgeted for the operation of 18 branches and the board went against this decision. We should be encouraging growth instead of closures. How are students and the elderly who don’t drive supposed to have library access?”
South Glengarry DeputyMayor Frank Prevost, who also sits on the board, said he was offended that the meeting was called on such short notice and that he’d like the board to reconsider the matter.
For his part, Mr. McGimpsey, who is also Deputy-Mayor of North Stormont, defended his board’s decision, saying that in the long run, it would improve library services across the united Counties.
He continues to be the target of branch supporters. At one point, a person called out, “Dishonest,” prompting Mr. MacDonald to declare the comment was inappropriate.
Although Mr. McGimpsey agreed Dalkeith residents would have to drive at least 22 minutes to access another library, in Alexandria or Vankleek Hill, he said that the Dalkeith location would live on as a depot where library patrons could order books online and have them delivered to Dalkeith.
He said the building would remain open and would still provide internet access and a selection of historical books. Although it would be operated by volunteers rather than paid library staff, Mr. McGimpsey sees this as more of a plus than a minus.
“I think it’s extremely creative,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for them to set their own hours. I see it as an opportunity to keep the branch open more than 15 hours a week.”
That idea isn’t likely to get a whole lot of immediate support, at least not according to Friends of the Dalkeith Library board member Brenda Noble, who said there’s not a whole lot of library patrons interested in volunteering.
As for the accusations of calling a meeting on short notice, Mr. McGimpsey says he called the July 29 meeting July 22. He said that date was ideal for a number of stakeholders so that the meeting wouldn’t conflict with board members’ vacation plans or family commitments.
Not everyone at the counties council table was quick to condemn the library board for its actions. Councillors Eric Duncan and Gerry Boyce both said it was necessary to trust the judgment of the library board.
Checking out forever
Brenda Noble says that if the Dalkeith library closes on Sept. 3, she will never set foot in another SD&G library ever again.
Ms. Noble, a member of the Friends of the Dalkeith Library, was one of two presenters to speak to counties council on Monday morning to fight for her library’s future.
After noting that counties council had approved “a budget that included enough money to run all 18 branches for the year,” Ms. Noble asked for one of the councillors to introduce a motion to delay or disallow the closure of the Dalkeith branch as well as branches in St. Andrews West and Morewood. She also asked that library board chairman Bill McGimpsey be removed from his position.
Ms. Noble spent much of her presentation discussing the budget, stating that counties council could easily keep the Dalkeith branch open if it simply reallocated some dollars.
According to Ms. Noble, the Dalkeith branch requires .1 per cent of the total budget, about $27,000. She noted that the furniture budget was $40,000, or $ 2,200 per library branch. “Surely we could go without new chairs for a year to save a library.”
She also noted that 65 per cent of the library budget, $1.4 million, goes to wages. She said that if the board cut just 21 staff hours, the Dalkeith branch could stay open for one year.
Ms. Noble also took issue with being told that Dalkeith residents could obtain library services in Alexandria. She noted that the driving distance is the “equivalent of driving from Cornwall to Long Sault,” which she described as unrealistic. She also said that the library doubles as a gathering place and that shutting down the Dalkeith branch would, in effect, be “shuttering a town” and “displacing a community.”
Ms. Noble wasn’t the only one to speak specifically about the Dalkeith branch.
Leo Lehtiniemi, who is married to the library board’s former vice- chairperson, Barb Lehtiniemi, said that closing the Dalkeith library goes against the library board’s formal mandate, which is “to provide free and equitable access to relevant information for the citizens of our diverse community, wherever and whenever they need it.” Mr. Lehtiniemi noted that Dalkeith is 23 km away from Alexandria, which is more than twice the distance as it is to Vankleek Hill. He said residents could get their library services there but would have to pay a non-resident fee of at least $30 since Vankleek Hill is outside of the United Counties.
“It might take as little as eight minutes on the 401 to get from one branch to another in south part of SD&G, but it takes three times that long - on two-lane township/county roads to drive between Dalkeith and Alexandria,” he said. “It will cost Dalkeith library patrons $5 per trip to go to Alexandria. That’s a surcharge over and above the part of their taxes to support a local library - one they will no longer will have.”
Mr. Lehtiniemi added that the statistics the library board – specifically its chairperson, Bill McGimpsey – based the decision on were not examined closely enough. After claiming that Mr. McGimpsey only compared user statistics for single month in 2016 with a single month from 2015, he then invited counties council to examine the bigger picture.
“Everyone knows things fluctuate from year to year and month to month, even in business,” he said.
According to Mr. Lehtiniemi’s analysis, the average number of monthly borrowers so far in 2016 is up 36 per cent from this time last year. Also, the monthly circulation in 2016 is up 23 per cent and the number of visitors is up 11 per cent.
Mr. Lehtiniemi wanted council to defer any action to implement the closure until the numbers have been carefully examined and the public has been consulted.
“This council has the opportunity make this a good news story,” he said.
FUTILE: Protesters, launching personal attacks against the library board chair, learned counties council could not save branches.