I thought about two of RFK's many memorable quotes last night. Here is the first one:
Whenever men take the law into their own hands, the loser is the law. And when the law loses, freedom languishes.
Patrick and I normally have our Date Night on Thursdays. But last night was the monthly Town Board Meeting in our little corner of the world, and a pressing concern of ours was on the agenda. We forewent the pleasures of romance in favor of civic duty.
Our library, which is private, has survived for a long time on a very small endowment supplemented by yearly gifts from the town. While in past years this Board has been generous in response to the library's growing needs as overhead and circulation have increased, the library hoped the community would support a guaranteed budget in order to meet its expenses with a little less stress. The voters agreed; last November, a referendum regarding funding for our town's library was passed.
To date, however, the Board has refused to give the library the budgeted money. This has been met with disbelief and outrage on the part of the library and its patrons and has elicited many letters to the editor of our tiny newspaper. Several citizens came to last night's meeting with prepared statements in support of the library; others were there with questions for the Board Members.
Patrick was one of the latter, and thank heaven he's such a gifted litigator. Emotions were generally running high last night, but under Patrick's genteel yet persistent questioning, along with that of a neighbor, the whole story began to come out.
It now seems clear to us that the Board never thought the referendum would pass, since it called for a 120% increase over gifts in previous years. When it did pass, the shocked and embarrassed Board realized it wouldn't have the money this year and began casting about for a way out.
An exit strategy was formulated by a lawyer hired by the Board, who, after digging around for a while, discovered that a technicality had been overlooked in the election. Public notice of the referendum must be published by the County Board of Elections in the local paper twice before Election Day; the B of E unfortunately only published notice once. As a result, according to the Town's lawyer, the election results were null and void. The Board has refused to fund the library based on this man's opinion.
The B of E certified the election despite its oversight regarding notice, and during the 30-day window allowed by law, neither the Town nor any private citizen contested the legality of the election or the results. Therefore, the library feels the referendum should stand and that the funds should be disbursed. The library has now had to hire a lawyer to bring a suit against the Town; its funding now lies in the hands of a judge.
Also clear to us last night was that a lot of this furor could have been avoided with a little humility on the part of the Town Board. A simple apology and a plea for time to work out the problems could have worked wonders with the library's staff. Instead, the Town Supervisor has been on the attack, citing the small percentage of voters who voted either way on the referendum as proof that the library was trying to put something over on the town's population.
The library, however, ran several full-page ads in the paper, much larger than the four-line legal notice the B of E was required to run. Signs were up in supporters' yards; the library had flyers available at its front desk detailing the particulars of the referendum. Of the approximately 10,000 residents of our town (I don't know how many are registered, voting adults), about 4,000 voted last November. More than half of those voted one way or the the other on the referendum, a statistic consistent with typical election results.
The Town Supervisor got more than a little self-righteous, saying that he represents all 10,000 residents, not just those 'few' who voted in favor of granting the library's request. He expressed concern that their voices weren't heard in the election. If they had wanted to be heard, though, they could have driven the half mile to the fire station or the VFW and cast their ballot, don't you think?
One councilman complained that despite repeated requests, the library had not shown the Board its budget, again implying secrecy on the part of the library. While I think it was not a smart PR move by the library not to disclose its budget, it was not in violation of any law or requirement. Local governments, which hold the purse strings, can often censor the libraries' decisions, actions, and contents through simple lack of funding. I can understand why our library would want to retain its independence even as it increased its dependence on public funds.
We townsfolk were heard, mostly graciously, for two hours on the subject; the meeting concluded at 11:00 p.m. Though we were tired and frustrated, Patrick and I felt confident that the Board got our message. The library is important to us, an almost sacred space dedicated to knowledge and freedom of information. But more important is our right to vote and to have our vote respected, and our right to hold our elected officials accountable for their actions and decisions.
We'll wait to hear what the judge says, hoping that he'll rule in favor of the library. But if the Board's opinion is upheld, we'll work hard to get a new referendum up for consideration this fall. We'll get through the disappointment by keeping in mind the second RFK quote I remembered last night:
Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.