Woodstock voters will decide whether to dissolve library district

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

The Woodstock Library is forging ahead with its plans for a new building despite a successful petition drive by opponents of those plans to force a referendum that, if approved, would dissolve the library district.

On July 27, the day before the 87th Library Fair, Woodstock Town Clerk Jackie Earley certified 703 signatures on the petitions by checking them against the official list of registered voters. Just 10 percent of registered voters, or 452 were needed.

“This determination by the town clerk is the culmination of eight weeks of effort to bring fundamental change to the governance of the Woodstock Public Library,” petition drive organizer John Ludwig said.

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The petition reads, “We, the undersigned, electors and legal voters of the Public Library District of Woodstock, New York, qualified to vote at the next general or special election, respectfully petition that there be submitted to the electors of the Woodstock Public Library District, for their approval or rejection at a referendum held for that purpose, a proposal to dissolve and terminate the Woodstock Public Library District.”

Per the New N.Y. Government Reorganization and Citizen Empowerment Act, Library trustees must meet within 30 days to pass a resolution calling for the referendum, which must be held at least 60 days, but no more than 90 days from the resolution.

The referendum was devised as a remedy to what opponents see as the trustees’ failure to carry out the wishes of those who participated in a recent survey showing 29 percent are in favor of new construction. The pro-referendum group also claims decades of missteps and neglecting routine maintenance on the current building.

Trustees have counter-argued that dissolving the district removes voters’ ability to decide on the budget and elect board members. According to library board President Dorothea Marcus, the state Legislature is no longer granting special library districts, so dissolving the Woodstock Library District means it will be gone for good.

Library Trustees voted earlier this year to seek architect proposals for a $5 million, 15,000-square-foot structure to replace the current facility which is half that size at about 7800 square feet.

Some features, including an 1812 ell that houses staff space and a mantle removed during a previous renovation would be incorporated in the new building.

In a letter to Marcus, Ludwig said, “I hope you agree it would be best for your board to suspend work on the new library plan pending the results of the referendum.”

Marcus calls Ludwig’s timing of the resolution highly suspect, since it was the day before the annual Library Fair. She said it was “demoralizing to the volunteers who were working on Friday in the pouring rain to get ready for the fair.”

Ludwig said there was nothing nefarious about his timing.

“It was the day before the fair that the clerk made her determination,” Ludwig said. “I certainly wasn’t going to wait until the library opened on Tuesday. As soon as I heard I let them know.”

Marcus said the board will consider a resolution at its regular meeting on Thursday, August 16 at 7 p.m. in the library. She expressed disappointment the town hadn’t notified the library earlier in the week when the petitions were submitted. 

Marcus also said she wants to see the petition signatures. As of July 31, nobody from the library had requested them, Earley said. All that is needed is a formal records request through the Freedom of Information Act, she said. Copies can be made for a nominal fee or the pages can be scanned and emailed.

Marcus prefers the referendum be on the same ballot as the November election, when voters will elect a Town Board member and cast their votes for governor, state Senate and Assembly, congressman and sheriff. 

Having the referendum on the same ballot and same day as another election will eliminate extra costs and can take advantage of a higher turnout, which benefits everyone, Marcus said. 

But Ludwig said holding the vote on the same ballot as everything else in the November 6 election may not be possible. He cited the law that made the petition possible — “the referendum shall be conducted in the same manner as other municipal elections or referendums for the local government entity affected by the proposed dissolution.”

Library elections are held in the library on the first Thursday in September.

Full steam ahead

The board has no plans to stop, having already raised $15,000 through donations, contributions from Friends of the Library and a grant from state Senator George Amedore to have three architects make presentations at an August 25 forum at the Mescal Hornbeck Community Center.

Marcus said the referendum is meant “to throw a monkey wrench in our plans, but we’re not going to let it stop our work.” 

Argus Architecture of Troy, Ashokan Architecture & Planning of Kingston and Stephen Tilly, Architect of Dobbs Ferry will provide initial drawings and models during the August 25 event from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m..

“We know we’re not perfect,” said Marcus. “We’re trying to do what’s best for the library.

Marcus said the choice to build new versus renovate wasn’t an easy one and noted she was initially in favor of a renovation, figuring that would be easier to present to a divided public. While renovation may have been a politically expedient choice, it wouldn’t be fiscally responsible in the long run, she said.

Marcus and Director Jessica Kerr said they are also focused on getting the budget passed. The spending plan includes opening the library on Mondays, something numerous patrons have requested. Kerr has made that possible with the addition of a part-time position and by moving hours around for existing staff. The budget, while increasing spending 3.69 percent, only calls for a 1.5 percent tax levy increase, thanks mainly to increases in anticipated contributions from Friends of the Library.

Kerr expressed frustration at such a drastic measure as the referendum when those dissatisfied with the board could have run for office. “Last year we had three seats on the board that went uncontested,” she said.

Kerr said she and the board will be consulting with attorneys as the library abides by the petition’s requirements. 

Future is uncertain

While Ludwig and other petition supporters say a Town Board takeover is a logical next step, that’s not a guarantee. The referendum will simply ask, “Shall the Woodstock Public Library District be dissolved?” It says nothing of a structure for reorganization.

“The obstructionists convinced some people that if the referendum passes, the town automatically takes over, appoints a library board and everything will be honky dory,” Friends of the Library President Michael Hunt said. “They didn’t mention that the voters have no more say in the matter if the referendum passes. The library trustees will have the power to decide between the town or a nonprofit.”

The Friends of the Library, a nonprofit volunteer organization with its own board that organizes the Library Fair, solicits donations and provides funding for library programs and capital improvements, could be a candidate to assume stewardship.

“We’d certainly put in a serious proposal if we thought that was the absolute best direction to go,” Hunt said. Funding would be a challenge, “but that’s what the Friends do best. We roll up our sleeves and do the work.”

Ludwig said the onus is now on the trustees. 

“I wish the library had a next step like talking to the Town Board. That’s up to them,” said Ludwig.

The library district’s charter, granted by the state Board of Regents in 1990, requires the trustees to transfer all assets to a nonprofit organization, federal or local government upon dissolution. To date, the Town Board has not discussed the mechanics of taking over the library, though much like recent transfer of the Woodstock Cemetery, it would likely appoint an advisory board to oversee daily operations. The library would become another section in the budget like the Community Center or any other town property.

But Hunt is confident it won’t come to that.

“The referendum will be defeated,” he said. “Woodstockers will vote to retain their rights as citizens, not abdicate that role.”

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