Bradford County commissioners accused of hiding future library plans
For nearly two months, Bradford County residents have criticized commissioners for proposing to close the county’s main library – and breaking the Sunshine Act.
The Sunshine Act is a law that mandates public officials and government organizations to make records and meetings publicly available.
On Aug. 24, commissioners held an executive meeting about the future of the Bradford County Library (BCL). Such sessions are legally kept private so government officials can discuss personnel, public safety, or other internal matters. But at that meeting, commissioners discussed closing the system’s biggest library without holding a vote. Minutes from that meeting were released to the public via social media on Oct. 15.
For weeks, commissioners have said they are not closing the library, but instead are ‘reimagining the building.’ While closing a county’s library is under commissioners’ purview, many residents are enraged – not just by the proposed loss of 36,000 materials, which include books, journals, and other resources – but by a series of decisions made behind closed doors.
Tensions boiled over during a commissioners meeting in Sept. when an advisory committee was appointed to oversee changes to BCL. Residents begged commissioners to add BCL Interim Director Rebecca Troup-Hodgdon or another staff member to the committee.
One resident, Angela Kopetan, called commissioners out for potential bias in picking the advisory committee. She’s been vocal about the library’s closure since the beginning, as her family relies on BCL. One of her children is in a wheelchair and BCL is the county’s only handicap accessible library.
“So, you didn’t meet with the library people ever and tell them that you intended to close [the library] never? I’m not getting an answer to that. Okay, well, I guess we know our answer then, ” said Kopetan.
Untangling PA’s library systems
Commissioners say they are not closing the library, but instead are ‘reimagining the building.’ They tell WVIA News they plan to move the county’s veteran services office into the building, and they’ll keep the library’s bookmobile operational.
Commissioners say that maintaining the library is not financially feasible. Commissioner Doug McLinko spoke about the county budget during a public meeting in Sept.
“I’ve told you before – I’m a broken record. I’m one guy, one commissioner. That budget to me is non-negotiable. It’s out of control. You see two-thirds of a drop…over a decade of usage [of the county library]. Two-thirds of a drop. Your numbers. Library [usage] numbers. And then a half a million dollar budget, look at it. It’s not rocket science,” said McLinko.
Library System of Bradford County Administrator Lea Chisum says commissioners have little to go on when running their library systems, in part because of unclear statewide library regulations.
She explained the PA Library Code – a confusing 195-page document regulating how libraries can be run and funded.
“One of the issues we have in Bradford County is, in addition to being a federated system, we are one of two systems in the entire state that has a county library within a federated system…this makes it complicated because municipal libraries, such as a county government [funded library,] are funded differently than independent libraries,” said Chisum.
There are two types of library systems in PA: consolidated and federated systems, according to Chisum. Consolidated systems have a main library whose decisions feed into its branches. Federated systems allow libraries to make decisions independent of each other.
In Bradford County, BCL is the system’s physical headquarters, but their funding is entirely separate from the other eight libraries. None of the other eight libraries in Bradford County get funding from county government.
Beyond PA’s Library Code, Chisum said that the formula used to distribute aid to libraries statewide has not been calculated for 20 years.
“We just now got back to $17 million. When it hits $17.5 million, there is a special formula that goes into place that the state has to run and we haven’t run it in 20 years. And we have no idea what it would do. It’s probably ridiculously complicated. I can’t find it at the moment, so I want to look at it. But, it could help us – it could actually mean more money. It could mean less, since our population has gone down,” said Chisum.
Library systems across the state are struggling with this same problem: they have to make new budgets for their libraries without knowing what money they could receive from the state.
“Until that [formula] is triggered, we don’t know what future state aid looks like. That’s part of why the Pennsylvania Library Association didn’t push for an increase this year after we just got an increase last year, because we don’t want to butt up against that ceiling and the formula be run and us be in chaos,” said Chisum.
Following the Sunshine Act
Beyond a confusing library code, Bradford County commissioners have come under fire not just for proposing changes to the county library’s finances, but for keeping those plans secret.
Currently, the Library Advisory Committee – the agency that will recommend in 90 days to commissioners whether to close BCL – is holding their next meeting on Oct. 25 at 11 AM. However, the meeting will not be open to the public.
In an email forwarded to WVIA News from a county resident, commissioners and Chief Clerk Michelle Shedden said that the committee does not need to follow the Sunshine Act, according to their council, County Solicitor Jonathan Foster Jr. The email states that all future advisory meetings will not be open to the public.
WVIA News reached out several times to commissioners for comment. We also contacted clerks and Foster for comment. So far, we’ve gotten no response.
Melissa Melewsky, in-house counsel for the PA NewsMedia Association, explained how commissioners and the Library Advisory Committee will break the law if they choose to keep their meetings private. She said that the committee is defined as an ‘agency’ of the government.
“If you look at the definition of ‘agency’ in the Sunshine Act itself, it covers not only the agency itself – in this case the county commissioners – but it also covers any committee that the commissioners create to render advice on matters of agency business,” said Melewsky. “It doesn’t matter that the committee doesn’t have the power to bind the agency or take official action. What matters is that they are going to be rendering advice on a matter of agency business. In this case, whether or not the library stays open.”
According to Section 702 of the Sunshine Act, the public has the right to “be present at all meetings of agencies and to witness the deliberation, policy formulation and decision making of agencies.” Section 703 of the act states that agencies can be any “commission of the commonwealth or of any political subdivision of the commonwealth.”
Melewsky says that commissioners will likely follow what their agencies recommend, making the agency’s obedience to the Sunshine Act imperative.
“The law recognizes that when an agency farms out a piece of business to a committee, the committee will do most, if not all of the work and the discussion about that issue. And then [it will] make a recommendation that will more than likely be adopted by the larger board. If you cut the public out of the committee process, the law recognizes that you cut the public out of the policymaking process as well,” said Melewsky.
Melewsky sees one reason as to why commissioners claim that the committee does not fall under the Sunshine Act.
“The only reason is to exclude the public from this important discussion,” said Melewsky.
Bradford County residents have 30 days from the time of alleged violation of the Act to file a civil lawsuit in the County Court of Common Pleas. Residents can also pursue criminal charges against the commissioners through the county district attorney’s office.
However, Melewsky says it’s unlikely that commissioners will ever see consequences from breaking the law.
“The problem with the Sunshine Act is largely because public officials can ignore it with impunity,” said Melewsky.
Enforcing the Sunshine Act is extremely difficult for the average person, according to Melewsky.
“This is a purely citizen-enforced law,” said Melewsky. “So, if someone believes that the law has been violated, really their only option is to pursue the issue themselves, is to file a lawsuit. Which is expensive and time-consuming.”
The next Library Advisory Committee meeting is scheduled for Oct. 25 at 11 AM. The meeting is closed to the public.