Woodstock Library referendum is over; some disagreements, scars remain

Woodstock Library Trustees have entered a period of listening and reconciliation following the 2-1 defeat of a referendum that, if passed, would have dissolved and terminated the form of governance that has operated the Woodstock Public Library since 1989.

The board set aside its regular agenda to listen to the public, who filled the reading room to capacity on November 8, speak about the referendum and whether to build a new library building or renovate the current structure, perhaps with added capacity. “We know that still one-third of the community voted Yes,” board President Dorothea Marcus said. “We’re very humbled by that.” Marcus acknowledged the board needs to do a much better job explaining its decisions and the processes to the public.

“Every ‘Yes’ vote is a possible vote against a bond [that would be needed to build a new building, or renovate the current structure] in the future,” warned outgoing Trustee Elaine Hammond, who said the board needs to reach out to them.

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“The level of contention we just went through impacted me in a greater way than I thought,” said incoming Trustee Kevin Kraft. He will be seated in January. “I hope the board in the next couple months will take a breath…and open up communication.”

From the public attending, Terry Funk-Antman said it is “essential,” that with the referendum behind them, trustees attend to the “public sentiment regarding the building.”

Though the referendum and building were separate issues, the board’s choice to build new prompted the petitions for the change of governance referendum. “Many who campaigned (against the referendum) remain concerned about the building process,” she said, pointing out there is no renovation option to show the public.

Former board President Doris Goldberg said the cost of renovation must be communicated clearly with the public and compared with the benefit of building new. She also suggested a cap so costs do not balloon out of control.

“I understand the ‘no-teardowners’ attachment to the building,” said Tim Moore, who campaigned against the referendum because neither the library nor the board as a body was permitted legally to take a side.

Renovation debate still looms

The cost of a renovation would be unknown until things are torn apart and no new space would be created. In fact some may be lost to provide wider aisles and make the building ADA compliant, he noted.

Moore hopes both sides can come together for the community’s benefit. “It is time to become neighbors again,” he said. “To think about the future.”

Architect Marty Nystrom, who served on the Facilities Task Force with Moore, said a renovation is not ideal. “Renovating this building in the long run means it’s not going to be a good layout for a building,” he said, explaining the library is an assembly of several additions without a clear line of sight for staff. “Members of the public charge this board with spending your money efficiently…They’ve had the courage to say the only way forward is to build new.”

Friends of the Library Treasurer Erin Cadigan thanked the community for putting its faith in the board and the library. She said the referendum supporters based their opinions on emotion when in fact new construction is more cost-effective. A renovation may yield another 20 or 30 years when a new building may last 50-100 years, she said.

Cadigan also criticized some of the accusations, such as a push for an enormous building.

“There’s no mega-structure happening here. It’s on the same footprint,” she said.

She asked the public to thank former Trustee John Ludwig for making the referendum possible because it has brought people together.

Library supporter Leslie Gerber said the town needs a building that has room for all the children’s and other activities offered. “The unfortunate tendency in this town is never to accept a decision and to do it over and over again,” Gerber said. “Get the job done before I die.”

Trustees have said all the information, including the Master Facilities Plan and a Building Conditions Survey, is available on the library website at woodstock.org/planning. But some contend people won’t take the time to read the material if it’s not presented in an attractive matter.

Susan Mickeljohn, who assisted with some public input groups, said PowerPoint presentations with visuals can help and she is willing to volunteer.

Former Town Councilwoman Liz Simonson, who worked on several contentious projects including the highway garage, warned trustees to approach cautiously. “I don’t want you to misconstrue this as a mandate to do whatever you’re going to do,” she said.

Julie Szabo, who voted for the referendum, said holding the library election and budget vote in September adds to the complications. “How do we vote, as a town, on the library so it’s clear?” she asked.

Marcus explained the September date is specified in the library charter and the trustees are considering an amendment to make the date coincide with regular November elections. The charter change requires approval from the state Board of Regents.

Impact on trustees

In addition to staff anxiety, the referendum took its toll on trustees in terms of stress and personal attacks. 

“This has been a really terrible last several weeks for me,” Trustee David Lewis said. “I’ve been called a minion. I’ve been called Trump,” he said. “My daughter asked me why are you doing this.” Lewis said the trustees are investing great amounts of time on behalf of making a better library. “We’re volunteers,” he said.

Trustee Tammy Katzowitz said her children want a new library and she represents them. “Please. The back-biting has got to stop. We’re not evil people.”

Trustee Liz Rosen said libraries have always been important in her life and one of the first things she did when she moved to town was volunteer for the Friends of the Library. “We don’t do things because it will make our ego feel better.”

Trustee Barry Miller said he has been on the board and involved with the building for 18 years “and I’ve watched it fall apart around me.” Miller wants people to keep an open mind. “If you enter something with a preconceived idea of what it is, you’re never going to have a discussion,” he said. “The last few months for me have been hell.”

Trustee and Building Committee Chair Jill Fisher is disappointed with the progress. “We very carefully crafted a plan. It was very open. It was inclusive. It was transparent,” she said. “I’m more worried about the future. Are we going to hand a can of worms to future generations to deal with.”

Humbling results

Library Director Jessica Kerr said she doesn’t consider the referendum defeat a win just because “Woodstock has decided not to create more problems for itself.” She said the vote signifies 20 percent of the original library charter population was dissatisfied with the library district. 

“We can get nothing done without rich community engagement,” Trustee Jesse Jones said. “We need to start from the very beginning.”

The next trustee meeting is at 7 p.m. Monday, November 19 in the library reading room. All regular meetings are open to the public.

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