A group opposing the decision to replace the current library building kicked off a petition drive to dissolve the Woodstock Library District and have the Town Board take control.
“The staff are hard working and first rate, but the trustees have failed in their duty to maintain the facilities and to represent the voters and taxpayers who own and support this institution,” said former library Trustee John Ludwig at a May 29 press conference on the library lawn. With the library’s iconic entrance and a backdrop, petition drive supporters stood behind Ludwig, holding signs reading “We Want our Library Back,” “No Teardown” and “Sign the Petition” among others.
“We don’t take this action lightly,” said Ludwig. “We love the library and we want to see it grow and to continue serving the people of Woodstock, as it has at this location for nearly 100 years.”
The group’s goal is to collect 700 signatures, though 10 percent of registered voters, or 498, is all that is needed to trigger a referendum on the ballot. Article 17A, Section 779 of General Municipal Law allows the public to call for the referendum to dissolve a government entity. Petitions must be filed with the Town Clerk’s office by August 1. If enough signatures are gathered, the referendum must be held no more than 120 days later.
Ludwig said the community would benefit from consolidation of services, something that is encouraged by state officials.
Trustees, director feel blindsided
But trustees and library officials, who were unaware of the campaign until a press release was issued, questioned why they weren’t consulted. “I don’t feel like I’m part of the conversation when I find out about this the day of,” Director Jessica Kerr said.
“I see you so much at our meetings and I see that you love our library,” Trustee Caroline Jerome said to Ludwig. “I really prioritize the community over the building, because to me the building is not the community and I really think it’s unfair to say that we’re not trying our darnedest. We meet with a lot of resistance and people not coming to us and talking to us directly. And that doesn’t make it easier for us. Do you really think we’re trying to not do our best for the town?”
Ludwig said many had high hopes after a community survey, but the board didn’t honor the results. The Growth and Bonding Survey issued last fall had 900 responses “and clearly showed 25 percent of the respondents support building a new library and 75 percent had a different opinion,” Ludwig said.
“That survey was flawed,” countered Friends of the Library member Sheila Isenberg.
“Everyone talked about how flawed it was. It was not clear-cut that this number wanted this and this number wanted that,” she said. “What was clear is that the voters of the town who elected the library board and the library trustees expect the library board and the library trustees to do what’s in their best interest.”
Isenberg said she’s watched the building deteriorate for 41 years, to which Ludwig countered, “That’s right,” while others in the audience accused the board of neglecting the building so they could build a new library.
Sam Magarelli, who partnered with Gay Leonhardt to draft the survey, defended its integrity. “We managed to get a significant sample,” he said. “The sample said hey, renovate, and maybe some building. That’s where the interest was. And there even was some interest in spending some money, but it was not to tear down. Ironically, this petition is kind of like a mini-survey with very simple choices so it’s easy for people to understand. Do you want to tear down the library, or take this wonderful part of Woodstock heritage and somehow enhance it and make it better?”
Pro-petition group member and former county Legislator Don Gregorius echoed other’s comments that the staff isn’t the problem, but it’s the governance and it’s time to put the matter up for a vote. “Let’s all vote on it. Why should we not vote? What are you afraid of not letting a vote? Are you afraid it’s not going to win for one side or the other?” he asked. “This is something very important that the public needs to be responsible and come and vote on it. In the end, the public has the right.”
But Isenberg, pointing to the group of people awaiting the press announcement, said it’s the same group of people who say ‘no’ to everything.
“This is very funny in a way. I see the same faces saying no to this new building, who said no to the post office, they said no to the affordable housing, they said no to renovating the community center,” Isenberg said. “They’re the no-sayers. They’re the people who say no and we’re the people who say yes.”
Time for trustees to step aside
Councilman Lorin Rose said the group invited him to the first meeting because they knew he too had grown frustrated with the way the library is being handled.
“I hate to see the building just torn down. I hate to see them just let it go fallow so they can say ‘The building’s a wreck. We want to tear it down,’” Rose said. “My mother’s name is on that bench in front of the library. She did so much for this library and I helped. Everybody helped. We support this library and to watch what they’re doing to it now…” he added, shaking his head.
He said problems with water in the basement can be handled inexpensively but the board doesn’t have the experience to know who to believe.
“Static pressure is bringing water up into the slab. But if you were to put an addition on the back of this and get the mechanicals up out of there, you could put 10 yards of crushed stone, pour a slab on it and fix the problem,” he said. “They don’t have the skills to know if they’re looking at a good deal or not, in my opinion.”
Town Councilwoman Laura Ricci, who is the Town Board’s library liaison, heard rumors of the petition drive but didn’t receive notice until a couple days before the press conference. She said the Town Board has not discussed the petition, but will follow the law if the referendum passes.
When the survey results were released, Ricci had suggested a follow-up survey narrowing it down to the top renovation choice and the new building, but, she said, people “were so tired because they just did a survey and they didn’t want to do that.”
Ricci said she doesn’t see value in “being married to this building,” which is small, “it is dark, it is cramped, it is moldy…I see value to the idea of doing something major different with it and keeping the character of Woodstock, keeping the lawn.”
Kerr said attention shouldn’t entirely be devoted to the building, but what goes on inside. She resents not being included in the conversation. “As library director I really want to say that I’ve been continuously frustrated that the conversations have been focused on what this building looks like rather than what happens inside it and what services there are for the library for the community,” Kerr said. “I’d like there to be more conversation about that, because I believe that is being left out and the future of Woodstock is far beyond any of our years.”
Library board President Dorothea Marcus said the trustees haven’t reviewed the petition or discussed it since they were just made aware of it. “We knew whatever we decided on was not going to be universally accepted. We bit the bullet and figured new construction would be much more cost effective,” Marcus said.
She said in an effort to avoid failed attempts of the past, the board is taking the extra step of having design concepts from three finalists presented to the public before the board hires an architect. “I think it’ll be interesting to see how people vote on the governance issue. I think it’s just kind of a diversionary tactic, frankly,” Marcus said. “We have been moving ahead and we have a lot of public support and momentum and I think it’s to kind of derail what we’re doing and slow everything down.”
Said Marcus, “This is not my legacy to the town of Woodstock. I just want us to have a good, functioning library.”
Response from the Woodstock Library
Wait! Before You Sign That…
If you support this referendum and sign the petition you will throw away your right to vote on library funding and governance. Indefinitely.
Be aware that the “Special Library District” is democratically elected by the people and the most recommended model of The New York Library Association:
- In terms of sustainable funding
- In terms of transparency
- In terms of voter control.
We ask the petitioners: How is dissolving the library district, destabilizing funding, and removing voter rights a win for the community?
We ask the petitioners: Aside from your efforts to dissolve the board and take away voter rights, how else do you plan to further library growth and serve our community?
We question: Whether the petitioners are trying to dissolve a democratically-elected board simply because they disagree with the decision to build a new library. In the end, the petitioners and the board have different priorities. We prioritize function and community over a building.
Always remember we love libraries. And we love our community! And thanks for taking the time to read this.
From a flyer produced by the Communications Committee of the Woodstock Library Board