Commissioner: It’s about process and integrity

To the editor:

The time has come to offer clarification on the Mifflin County Library and the controversy surrounding it. Let’s start from the beginning. Soon after taking office, the present board of commissioners appropriated the sum of $15,000 to be split evenly between the Rothrock Community Library in McVeytown and the Menno-Brady Library in Allensville. The vote was three to zero.

A. Some people have questioned why this was done. The answer is simple. When two branch libraries (McVeytown and Allensville) were closed by the county library system, they organized their own community libraries and everything that went with it including (among other things) re-cataloguing/bar coding every book, the establishment of business hours and training and staffing by volunteers.

B. Bratton, Oliver, Wayne, McVeytown and Menno pay county taxes like all other local governments. Last year these municipalities paid $2,613,255 in county taxes. The sum of $15,000 equals 0.0069339 of the taxes they contribute. It is local tax money being returned to communities for the benefit of the people living in them. Contributing this small sum of money is very reasonable, in my opinion.

Within days of taking office as county commissioner, I met with Molly Kinney, director of the Mifflin County Library and another library employee. She brought the chairman of the library board with her. In that meeting I asked for a letter of acknowledgment/apology stating that the Mifflin County Library could have acted in a much more transparent and democratic manner in the way it chose to close the branches. If the letter were written, there would be no budget implications for the county library system. Commissioners Kodish and Nancollas were also present at this meeting.

If the letter was not forthcoming, the amount of funding dedicated to Rothrock and Menno-Brady would be held from the Mifflin County Library appropriation. Under this allocation, the Mifflin County Library would receive $145,000 with $7,500 going to McVeytown and $7,000 going to Allensville. Overall, county spending on public libraries would remain the same, at $160,000.

Brett Rogers, chairman of the Mifflin County Library Board of Directors, recently wrote a letter to the Sentinel about my request. Let me say from the outset that I think he is an honorable individual with impeccable character. However, he characterized this request as an “indictment of past practices that did not occur.” I beg to differ with him. Unfortunately, Mr. Rogers was not on the board at the time. I was.

Clearly, I preferred to find an alternate course of action in which the branches would have remained open until some short term or longer term goals were established between the Mifflin County Library, the municipal officials for areas where the branches were located, and the general public in the communities that were being served. With a strong fundraising plan, assistance from the county commissioners and increased municipal support, I believe the branches could have remained open. However, the library board had no interest in fundraising, and the commissioners, under chairman Mark Sunderland, refused an additional appropriation.

While Commissioners Sunderland and Riden were in office, county funding for the Mifflin County Library was cut by $254,000, or more than one quarter of a million dollars. Ironically, when Sunderland and Riden were running for re-election last year, the president of the library board, Tom McNabb, wrote a lengthy letter to the editor extolling the virtues of Sunderland and Riden and why they deserved re-election.

Molly Kinney knows library science. She has initiated good programming at the library and some needed reforms. Kudos to her on these points. However, in my estimation, she has failed miserably in recognizing her global responsibility to raise money in support of the library. Today, libraries, just like health care, farming and education, are businesses. Failure to understand this basic concept will lead to ultimate failure. I wrote an extensive multi-page fundraising document for the library well over three years ago. In my opinion, the document was shelved because neither Molly nor the board were committed enough to undertake the tough task at hand. I have been advised that Molly and the current board are now in the process of raising funds. That is movement in the right direction. But why has it taken Molly so long to realize that fundraising is a major part of her job?

When it became evident the library had the votes to close the branches, it should have taken every effort to make certain the process was clean. My issue is process. If the process is flawed, so too, is the end product. If the process is fair to all parties, and the playing field is level, one must accept the outcome regardless of whether or not it is the result you want. I feel the action by Molly Kinney and the board of directors for the county library was anything but fair. Here are some relevant facts surrounding the closure of the Allensville, Milroy and McVeytown branch libraries:

A. Two of the three libraries were closed by posting a note on the door stating the library was closed until further notice. Weeks later, another note was posted on the door stating the libraries were closed permanently. This is not the way to do business for a public entity like a library. It’s unacceptable. It might be satisfactory for a tattoo parlor to post a note on its door upon closing, but not a facility supported with taxes.

B. Since Molly Kinney became director of the county library, 39 board meeting have been held. The only board meeting held in mid-afternoon was the meeting in which the board closed the Milroy and Allensville branches. This meeting was held April 3, 2013, at 2 p.m. A mid-day meeting kept school children and the working parents of school children from attending the meeting and voicing their objections to the closures. The timing of this meeting was not, in my opinion, a coincidence. The remaining 38 meetings have been held at 6:15 p.m. or 5:15 p.m.

C. Given my community and political experience, it would have been easy for me to fill two or three van loads of people from the Allensville area, including several children and their parents, to protest the closures and seek and alternative course of action. A 2 p.m. meeting precluded this from happening.

D. The meeting to close the McVeytown branch was held in Belleville, not Lewistown. This forced McVeytown area citizens to travel over Jack’s Mountain to attend the closure meeting. One of the two trips across the mountain would have been made in darkness. It would have been easier for the McVeytown area residents to drive to Lewistown. When I asked Molly Kinney about this in January of this year, she indicated that McVeytown people do not travel to Lewistown. Really? Since when has Belleville become the Mecca for McVeytown residents?

The McVeytown closure meeting in Belleville was the only one of 39 meetings to be held in Belleville. Again, in my opinion, no coincidence.

E. It is also my opinion that in each of the closure meetings, Molly Kinney and the board placed hurdles in the way of citizens who wanted to question or oppose the closings.

F. The library board never advised the local municipalities of the closings. The township supervisors of Bratton, Oliver, Wayne, Armagh and Menno Townships were not notified in person, by mail, email, fax or telephone of the closings. Neither was the McVeytown mayor or council members. The library board had total disregard for local government and its citizens. That, too, is unacceptable. Federal, state and county governments work through municipalities. So, too, should the library board and Molly Kinney, since the county provides substantial funding to the library.

Further, the above named municipalities provided the space for the facilities; paid the heating, electric, water, cleaning service and trash removal for the branch libraries. In other words, over the last several decades, the branch library communities contributed tens and tens of thousands of dollars to the county library system, recognizing the importance of libraries within their respective communities.

G. To whom does the head librarian and the board of directors report? Neither answers directly to the voters because they are appointed and not elected. Molly Kinney indicates she answered to the board. But to whom does the board answer? To whom is the board accountable? Besides minimal state regulations, they largely answer to themselves. If they chose to ignore what many people believe are the principals of fair play, transparency and accountability the commissioners can intercede in an effort to change board behavior. One way to do this is by altering the county appropriation to the county library, in this instance changing from $160,000 to $145,000 in a worst case scenario.

The branch library closings were a sensitive and emotional issue for many people. Molly Kinney and the library board needed to conduct themselves in a way that earned the respect of all stakeholders.

I have a degree in library science. I have a lifetime record in support of public libraries. If individuals choose to believe this is vindictive behavior on my part, or that I opposed library funding they neither know me nor my record. Unfortunately, they are those who use the Open Line as a means to degrade others, while hiding under the cloak of anonymity the Open Line provides.

Process and integrity are the critical words in the current debate. Those who compromise process compromise the integrity and validity of the decision. There is little difference between what the library did with the branch closures than what Penn State did recently to the Learning Center in Lewistown.

Why did Molly Kinney and the library board decide to close the branch libraries in Milroy, Allensville and McVeytown? Because, it was the easiest and quickest way out. These libraries were closed because they were tiny tadpoles in the pond of the county library. Why did Penn State choose to (discontinue for-credit classes) at the Lewistown Learning Center? Because, it too, was easy. Lewistown was the tiny tadpole in Penn State’s own sizable pond.

Remember always, one person’s floor is another person’s ceiling.

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech. Unlike people who use the Open Line, the people who would have attended the branch closure meetings would have given their names and relevant information. Unfortunately, they were denied access to participation in the meetings and denied their constitutional right of free speech.

Steve Dunkle

Mifflin County

Commissioner