Editorial: Clear and just Forbes Library ruling in Northampton

  • Forbes Library at 20 West St. in Northampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The year-long legal battle between Forbes Library and the city of Northampton ended in June with a marriage rather than divorce in Hampshire Probate and Family Court — a welcome outcome for all involved, particularly patrons of this gem of a library.

The judgment reiterates that Forbes is not a city department and that its workers are not municipal employees — confirming the independence from political control that library trustees argued was established in the 1876 will of Charles Edward Forbes.

At the same time, the agreement calls for the trustees and city officials to work together “in a spirit of collaboration and partnership” on maintenance and renovations to the library at 20 West St. We hope that ends decades-long squabbling that at times turned petty over issues as large as a new climate-control system and windows, and as small as minor electrical repairs.

We are glad that the city and library trustees ultimately agreed on an amicable settlement of the dispute resulting from applying 21st-century management practices to a 19th-century will, before the legal costs escalated beyond the estimated $46,000 already spent. Mayor David Narkewicz said it is a “historic agreement. It’s the end resolution that I wanted, and I’m happy.”

Russell Carrier, the president of the library’s board of trustees, described it as “a sound and fair agreement” that will “eliminate surprises and reduce tensions.”

The library has its roots in the will of Forbes, a Northampton lawyer and state Supreme Judicial Court justice. His bequest stipulated a $150,000 book fund, $50,000 building fund and $20,000 aid fund to pay library employees and “other necessary expenses.”

The bequest specified that when it was accepted — which residents did at a town meeting in 1881 — Northampton was obligated to pay the cost of administering the library beyond the income generated by the aid fund, and to keep the building in good repair. The city now provides most of the money for the library’s operating and capital expenses — a total of $2,378,305 in the fiscal year that began July 1.

In recent decades, those obligations have produced tensions between mayors, who wanted more information about library administrators’ spending decisions, and the trustees, who desired to retain the independence they maintained was guaranteed by Forbes’ will. Narkewicz in January 2016 sent a memo to Carrier asking for a meeting to discuss the next steps regarding “ongoing maintenance and budgetary issues.” The mayor included an opinion by city lawyer Alan Seewald asserting that “the Library functions as a department of the City.”

That struck a nerve with the library trustees who broke off negotiations with the city and filed a court complaint seeking “a declaration as to the rights and obligations of the parties, including specifically the status of the Trustees.”

According to Carrier, the judge’s ruling affords protection against attempts in the future to erode the trustees’ power to manage the library. “The trustees were concerned that if we did not respond to this attempt to unilaterally alter the relationship between the library and the city, the city might attempt to do this again in the future,” he said.

The settlement approved by Judge Linda Fidnick states that “Although the Library is not within government, it is a public institution operated for the benefit of the inhabitants of Northampton. The Trustees are solely responsible for … establishing Library policies, hiring and managing employees, and developing and maintaining the Library’s collections.”

As for the mayor’s concerns, the agreement affirms that the library trustees should work closely with municipal officials, including the Central Services Department, on construction and repair projects, and comply with state procurement policies and the Massachusetts Prevailing Wage Law.

Continued transparency is ensured by requiring that the trustees also comply with the state’s Open Meeting Law, as they have done in the past.

The court order is a sensible document that charts a clear course for the library and city to work as partners for years to come — a good thing for everyone who finds Forbes a priceless resource.