In the world of municipal politics, optics can be everything. That's why it was somewhat surprising that, before approving the five new library board members at council's Monday meeting, Mayor Barb Clumpus read a prepared statement carrying the title 'A Value Statement regarding Library Services for all residents of the Municipality of Meaford'.
Surprising not due to the content of the statement, which in fact is a well-crafted, and in many ways admirable document. As admirable as the document itself might be, however, in Ontario library boards are meant to operate at arms-length from, and without influence by, municipal councils, and though after some reflection, I don't think that the 'value statement' read by the mayor crossed the line, it certainly pushed up against the line.
Given the recent climate in this municipality surrounding library issues and the lack of trust on many fronts given recent events – which included an attempt by council to circumvent Ontario's Public Libraries Act by appointing library board members without following the procedure required by the Act, the statement felt icky, and it might have been best for council to have saved such a statement for another day.
Public libraries are understandably a source of friction for municipal councils throughout the province. Libraries are a big ticket item in most municipal budgets, yet unlike many other services provided by a municipality, councils have limited influence over how they are run. It must be frustrating to fork over hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to a service over which council has very limited control. That said, the Public Libraries Act exists in part to ensure that libraries across the province are managed using the same set of rules, but also to ensure that such an important service doesn't become a political football.
Let's face it, as important as libraries are (and they are important, important enough that the province recognizes the need for legislation specifically for libraries), they can't and don't generate much, if any, revenue, but they require significant funding to operate.
Most municipalities don't have the same political issues surrounding libraries as we do here in Meaford. Our situation is somewhat unique, in that we have two libraries serving our community, and one of those libraries is located outside of our municipality. This makes the Public Libraries Act even more important because the legislation provides a framework for making our particular circumstance work, and ensures that all parties are on the same playing field.
I've written before that, for many reasons, I don't envy municipal councils, and in this municipality, when it comes to libraries, I definitely don't envy them. Councils however are often their own worst enemies, which brings me back to the well-crafted and largely admirable statement read by the mayor on Monday, and optics.
I'm all for pushing against, and testing the limits of boundaries, but as with most other things, there's a time and a place to do so. Monday's meeting was certainly not the time for council to share their vision of where the new library board should be heading, given the years of friction in this municipality regarding library services, and especially given that just a few weeks ago council clearly contravened the Public Libraries Act in their hasty attempt to appoint library board members. The attempt to appoint a new board followed the mass-exodus of public library board members as a result of council attempting to bypass the previous board in order to make a deal with Owen Sound themselves, in order to avoid the loss of library service for Sydenham residents at the OSNGUPL.
To say that council was simply sharing their values and strategic priorities, in my opinion, is poppycock.
The six “suggestions” included in the document, while not exactly giving direction to the new board, were certainly intended to influence the incoming board members.
Again, I don't believe that council technically did anything wrong in issuing the statement, I think they managed to push up against the line without crossing it, but if their sole goal was to make the new board aware of council's strategic priorities and its values, they could have simply provided the board with a copy of Meaford's official plan and their publicly available strategic priorities document and asked that the board members read the documents. These five residents applied to be on the library board, my guess is they enjoy reading, and I'm confident they would have read through the documents if asked.
The optics would have been much better, and council would have shown that they trust the five residents along with two councillors that they were about to appoint to the board for the remainder of this council term to chart their own path, and do what's best for this municipality.
I wish the new library board well. They are taking on a responsibility that few are willing to take on, and they take their seats at the board table in a somewhat uncomfortable climate. Let's hope that council doesn't try to bypass this board in an attempt to find a solution to the OSNGUPL contract issue as they did with the previous board – they've been appointed to do a job, let them do it.