Forbes Library, Northampton reach ‘historic’ agreement

  • Forbes Library at 20 West St. in Northampton

  • left, Ralph Holley, a children's librarian, talks to Jonah Abel-Waisman,9, about summer reading at Forbes Library. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Forbes Library employee Steven Stover checks in newly published titles at the library’s circulation desk Thursday. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hope Kmetz,7, of Easthampton looks at the fish which lives at Forbes Library Thursday afternoon. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Susan Schaeffer, left, and Jane Summer, work at the circulation desk at Forbes Library Thurdsay afternoon. Above, the outside of the library on West Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS PHOTOS

@amandadrane
Published: 6/29/2017 5:19:26 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Forbes Library is not a city department and its leaders and employees are not city employees, though the library is “a public institution” reliant on public dollars, according to an agreement between library trustees and city officials that resolves a long-standing legal dispute.

The library will continue its practice of holding open meetings and follow the bidding and other laws required of entities that spend taxpayer funds, according to the agreement approved Thursday by Judge Linda Fidnick. According to the city, the library gets nearly all its operating budget from city tax dollars.

Trustees and city officials ended the dispute in Hampshire Probate and Family Court with a document that resolves differences in their interpretations of the will that established the historic library.

At issue was how the library spends public money on maintenance and repairs, ownership of the library and its assets, and whether library trustees and staff members are subject to the state’s open government laws like others elected or hired to serve city residents.

Northampton officials had contended that the library functioned as a department of the city and that as elected public officials who expend taxpayer funds for a public purpose, the trustees formed a public body and library employees were public employees.

Trustees elected by the public hold legal title to the library’s assets in the form of a charitable public trust created by the will of Charles Edward Forbes in 1876, the agreement states. It also states that any repairs and alterations to the building will be handled “in a spirit of collaboration and partnership” between the city and trustees, and that the library will follow the state’s open meeting, public records, procurement and prevailing wage laws.

The trustees have for many years held their meetings in public. The agreement affirms that the openness will continue.

Library trustees filed a complaint against the city in May 2016, claiming Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz viewed the trustees as a governmental body and library as a city department. They sought for the court to “definitively interpret” the provisions of Forbes’ will, fearing that the city was attempting to “unilaterally alter the historic nature of the relationship between the library and itself which we believed neither party had the legal right to do individually,” trustees said in a statement Thursday.

“It was sort of a mushy thing, the nature of this dispute,” Eric Lucentini, an attorney for the trustees, said in probate court Thursday.

“This lawsuit presented very unique issues … that required in-depth research regarding arcane principles of trust law,” Northampton’s City Solicitor Alan Seewald wrote in an email to Gazette. “I’m pleased that the Trustees and the Mayor were able to agree to the resolution that the Court entered as its judgment today.”

The legal challenge cost library trustees nearly $30,000, according to Russell Carrier, chairman of the trustees. The city’s costs were approximately $16,100, according to figures provided by Seewald.

Lucentini said the handling of library repairs and the question of open government laws lay at the heart of the dispute. He said the agreement clarifies those issues and that the city and library would approach handling of repairs “as equals.” He called the friction between Forbes and the city “productive,” as it resulted in “a go-to document” to guide such questions moving forward.

Following Thursday’s hearing, Narkewicz described the pact as “an historic agreement.”

“It’s the end resolution that I wanted, and I’m happy,” Narkewicz said.

He said friction between Forbes Library and City Hall didn’t begin with his administration.

“There’s historically been tension between City Hall and the library,” Narkewicz said. “This has been something that’s vexed former mayors in the past.”

Carrier called the Thursday accord “a sound and fair agreement” that will “eliminate surprises and reduce tensions.”

“I hope that we can put this difficult period behind us and continue the historic partnership that has benefited and enriched the lives of our community for well over a century as Judge Forbes intended,” Carrier wrote in a statement.

He said the agreement ensures a certain degree of separation between the library and City Hall.

“It protects the library from outside political interference in hiring staff, establishing policies, and developing and maintaining its collections,” Carrier stated. “It maintains that the library is a public charitable trust and not part of the city government and thus that the trustees, officers, and staff are not city employees.”

After the library exhausts income from its Aid Fund, a general fund created in the will that created the library, the agreement states the city has an obligation each fiscal year to appropriate funds “sufficient to pay expenses necessarily incurred in the operation of the library.”

It also states the library must avail itself of the city’s resources for library repairs apart from maintenance that can be handled by the library’s custodial staff. In addition, the library and city must “actively collaborate” and “reach agreement” on all aspects of projects involving publicly funded construction, renovation or repairs at the library.

The library must also consult with the city if its use of private funds for a project or changes in operations would bring additional costs to the city, according to the agreement.

Narkewicz cited recent city-funded work to the library’s heating and air conditioning system and window refurbishment as examples of how the two entities will collaborate in the future.

“Central Services led the procurement but we worked with the director and the trustees,” he said.

In the past, Narkewicz said the library would independently manage repairs and send the bill to City Hall. He said the agreement ensures City Hall reimbursements are “not just a blank check.” He said the city spent $1.7 million on the library in fiscal 2017 — nearly all of the library’s budget for the current year — and is projected to spend $2.4 million in the fiscal year that begins Saturday.

“These are public dollars,” he said. “Decisions around those funds have to be done in an open and transparent manner.”

Carrier asserts it was necessary to have an official ruling on the matter, which is why trustees pursued the litigation.

“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 of a memo Seewald issued in January 2016.

That memo said that the library functions as a department of the city when it comes to appropriation of funds and repairs, with Seewald concluding that the mayor may set policy as to how those specific obligations were to be carried out.

“And by acting this way, precedents would have been set,” Carrier stated.

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@gazettenet.com.




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