Bill seeks changes to library governance

Members of the General Affairs Committee heard testimony Feb. 1 on a bill that seeks to harmonize the governance authority that cities and villages in Nebraska have over libraries.

LB969, sponsored by O’Neill Sen. Tyson Larson, would allow all municipalities in the state to choose whether libraries within their community are governed by a board that is part of city government or by a separate advisory board.

According to the bill’s statement of intent, only first-class cities currently have the authority to choose between the two governance methods.

Marty Bilek, chief of staff to Omaha mayor Jean Stothert, testified in support of the bill. Currently, the Omaha library system functions as a city department, he said, noting that library staff are city employees and the director uses municipal resources to run the city-owned facilities.

However, he said, the advisory board makes spending decisions for the system, including the recent hiring of a new director. The director’s salary was decided without input from the city, he said.

“It’s frustrating for us, because if there’s going to be a department head that’s hired, we’d like to have some say in it,” Bilek said.

Gary Krumland of the League of Nebraska Municipalities also supported LB969, saying the bill’s provisions ensure that a city council would not be responsible for choosing library materials. Advisory boards still would exist, he said, but cities would have greater say in personnel and financial decisions.

“It would give the ultimate authority to the elected officials who have the responsibility and ultimately the liability for decisions that are made within the city,” Krumland said.

Rod Wagner, director of the Nebraska Library Commission, testified in opposition to the bill. He said that problems within the current system between library boards and elected officials have been minor and readily resolved.

The state has more than 1,300 library board members, he said, who are appointed by elected officials in the state’s municipalities. As a result, cites already have adequate oversight provisions, he said.

“The library commission opposes actions which would reduce the authority of public library boards,” Wagner said.

Steve Fosselman of the Nebraska Library Association also spoke in opposition. While it is tempting for cities to seek greater authority over libraries, he said, doing so would take time away from the more important goals of finding ways for libraries to expand the impact and reach of their services.

Even if the bill does not give cities the ability to make book selections, he said, it could lead to the politicizing of other library functions. Library boards currently make important decisions regarding confidentiality, equal access, priorities of service, long-range planning, censorship and more, he said.

“If this authority that the library board has entrusted to it is kept in place,” Fosselman said, “it really does clear the chalkboard for really good honest discussions about how the libraries in different cities do budgeting, finances and personnel and [we] can come to some really good solutions.”

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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