The city council “majority” that many claimed had already made up its mind about outsourcing (or privatizing) the Escondido Library Wednesday turned out to be not so monolithic, after all. Nevertheless, the result was the same.
A deeply divided Escondido City council voted 3-2 to move forward with negotiations with Library Systems & Services to outsource Library services. Olga Diaz and Michael Morasco voted no. Ed Gallo, John Masson and Mayor Sam Abed voted yes. Many things are left up in the air by the vote, including a possible legal challenge.
The council listened patiently to 70 speakers — the great majority against outsourcing the library, for more than three hours, followed by an hour of council commentary before the vote.
Morasco complained that many library activists had assumed he would vote with the “majority,” when he hadn’t made up his mind until that evening. Councilmember Ed Gallo predicted the issue would become “a political football” in the 2018 council elections. An emotional Diaz said that after this vote she wasn’t sure she wanted to remain on the council.
Mayor Sam Abed made a compelling case for the need to save $16 million over the next four years.
The evening began when the crowd in the council chambers gave councilmember Olga Diaz a standing ovation as took her seat. Diaz has very publically opposed outsourcing and intimated that the council had already made up its mind months ago.
City Manager Jeff Epp began his presentation by noting that the process was very difficult for staff. When several people laughed derisively, Mayor Abed admonished the public to treat speakers with respect.
“Let’s have civil discourse,” said Abed. “I’ll make a deal with you,” he said. He promised to listen to all the speakers without interrupting them, if audience members would accord the same courtesy to those they disagreed with.
To highlight the contentious nature of this issue the first slide on Epp’s presentation was of a sign where someone wrote “outsource Jeff Epp.”
Epp said he had met the person who made that sign and that in the course of this process he met people who “have been some of the most vocal, polite and intelligent people I have dealt with.”
Epp said his job as city manager is to present the council with the option of outsourcing to Library Systems & Services. “In some circles they are very unpopular, but we have found them to be very good to work with,” he said.
The pluses would be that the library would open an additional day, on Sunday and that all of the existing library staff would be hired, although instead of being city employees they would work for LS&S, he said.
“The city council would continue to have the final say,” said Epp. “It would be a public library. The name would not change. The building and property would remain city assets. The Library board of trustees would remain intact.”
The city has not begun contract negotiations, said Epp. He noted that the city outsources many of its services already, such as the operation of Vineyard Golf Course. “They would guarantee that current staff would be offered employment,” he said. “Most of their efforts would focus on servicing the community.”
LS&S would bring superior technology and “Four million dollars in savings over ten years.”
Epp said a prime reason for hiring LS&S would be to use their resources to sell the community on a bond election to fund a new library at Grape Day Park. This prompted a derisive groan from the audience.
Assistant City Manager Jay Petrek said, “There is a need to do something different than what we are doing now if we are to get the budget under control.”
Epp said, “One thing we will need to grapple with is whether we will be able to pass a library bond measure.”
Todd Frager, LS&S’s chief financial officer and chief operations officer, said his company hopes to form “a true partnership with the city of Escondido.” He added, “We believe that the institution of the library is bigger than the employees and LS&S.”
Frager said, “Our ability to meet and exceed expectations” will help the city to sell a bond. They would expand hours from 51 a week to 69 and be open on Sundays, he said.
“We believe we can maintain what patrons love about the library while improving engagement and outreach to a larger portion of the community and enhance programs and services.” He said, “The library belongs to you. What we propose is not privatizing but outsourcing. All will belong to Escondido. The control will be yours. We will report direct to the library board of trustees and the city council.”
Frager said LS&S would bring technology and analytics and “measurable outcomes.” He said, “The employees will remain connected to Escondido and from Escondido.”
The greatest compliment his company receives, he said, is when people visit their libraries and no one knows they are outsourced.
Speakers were mostly limited to two minutes.
The first speaker, Roy Garrett, set tongues wagging with the bold statement: “You don’t have jurisdiction to issue this contract because management of our public library is in the hands of the library board of trustees and the library board of trustees is by statute incorporated into the library. I know that you have the power of the purse, but that is not enough to manage. You have a very severe legal problem on just that point.”
Although the great majority spoke against privatization, one speaker supported the staff proposal. She said that when she complained the metal detector wasn’t working she was told the library didn’t have the money to fix it. “The Escondido public library is no place for communists!” she declared.
Jack Anderson, chairman of the Escondido Library Foundation, stressed that support for a bond might be alienated. “Our board recommends the city staff with the same plan,” he said.
Laura McKenney, who retired as Escondido librarian six years ago, argued against outsourcing “because of a loss of local control. This is an unconscionable loss of public control,” she said.
One speaker declared, “I propose we outsource the city manager and city attorney, the highest paid in California.”
Myra Ferguson asked: “Would you want your children to be taught by hourly employees?”
“Would you like to be remembered as the mayor who turned the library into a warehouse that stores books,” said another.
A man warned, “You are going to pay the price at the next election but you don’t seem to care because you don’t think the people are noticing.”
Viktor Sjoberg, a senior librarian, made an impassioned plea that accused Abed of running a “public smear campaign” against library staff. “Business is business and I understand that you will have to make some significant cuts but the way you are doing it is reckless and mean,” he said. “City Manager Epp had said ‘You can’t run a city based on emotion’ but I say You need to do it with compassion.”
Michelle Peralta, the library’s archivist, said she sees nothing in LS&S’s plan on how it would operate the library’s special Pioneer Room collection.
John Ward, president of the local Democratic Club said: “I want to protect the last surviving library in Escondido from a corporate takeover.” He said he doubted the council cares about public input or they wouldn’t schedule meetings at 4:30. “Is the city council really interested in hearing the public?” He added, “those of us who remember the demise of the East Valley Library are right to fear this council.”
Neal Griffin said he had never seen this level of passion from the public in 27 years. He said the decision ought to be an easy one: “listen to the people.”
Eric Carr said, “You want us to vote for a bond? You might as well ask us to vote for a new Charger stadium.”
Ron Guiles of the library board of trustees listed several reasons to oppose outsourcing. Among them: the library would lose talented staff to outsourcing and uncertainty. “It’s extremely difficult to pass a bond issue without having it opposed by a disgruntled group— the city is in danger in losing the support of the Friends of the library who annually raise $75,000.” He concluded: “The city could potentially give away too much for a small benefit.”
He said that of the people who communicated their desires to the board, 1,000 signed a petition against the proposal and of the 58 who spokes, three were in favor.
Another man who spoke for the staff recommendation said, “Most people say that LS&S has saved them money.” He added that most cities are “under the thumb of the employee unions.”
Debbie Resler said, “I know there is a budget crisis but this is trying to address a gaping chest wound with a Band-Aid.”
Laura Hunter of Escondido Indivisible, criticized the “push poll” Abed paid for to gauge public sentiment. Abed told the Union Tribune that a small minority were against the outsourcing.
Hunter declared, “Push polls give unreliable results.” She accused staff’s recommendation of “ignoring library employees” and “treating them like they don’t exist.” She added, “Mr. Masson, you are putting your vision [of a library for Grape Day Park] at risk.”
Speaker Neal Hook said he didn’t trust the council to act wisely because it closed the East Valley branch. “The council ignored the people’s wishes and it seems like they are doing that again,” he said.
Paul McNamara, who is running against Abed for mayor, said: “Your record is a very long list of bad decisions and this would be one more … the way to get yourself out of a hole is to stop digging.”
The council spent about an hour deliberating.
Councilman Ed Gallo asked the city attorney for an opinion on the statement that the council doesn’t have the legal authority to outsource the library.
Gallo indicated his frustration: “I sat here and listened to ninety speakers and I never said a word. I just get so tired of this crap.” He said he couldn’t understand why volunteers wouldn’t volunteer for a library run by a private company. “Unfortunately, this will be a political football in next year’s election. No one will care about anything else,” he said.
He spokes about the Temecula library, which is operated by LS&S. Referring to a speaker who said had no one would want to move to Escondido if they hear the library is privatized., he said, “I think the people in Temecula will be a little upset when they hear Temecula is not a place you would want to move to.”
Gallo added, “You can’t be afraid of change. As human beings, we are terrified. We don’t like our yard messed up. But change happens whether you want it or not.”
Mayor Sam Abed, aided by a slide presentation, explained his support of the staff recommendation. “We have been working hard to build tax revenues,” he said. Their work was threatened by increased CalPERS payments of $18 million the city must pay within four years, he said.
“When we closed the East Valley Library it was not an easy decision. But we have an obligation to come up with $20 million. That is a bill that we have to pay. If we didn’t have that we wouldn’t be here tonight,” said Abed.
Outsourcing the library is preferable to cutting the library’s budget, he said, and he would never cut the public safety budget. “Between now and four years from now we need to come up with $18 million. It has to come from somewhere. We are going to look at any source in our city.”
He noted that the County Grand Jury had called on the city to improve library services. “This is an opportunity to make it better. We took the Grand Jury report seriously.”
When he visited the Temecula Library, “I was impressed. I was inspired. I want Escondido library to be like this. I spoke to the volunteers and they love it.” He said the patrons in Temecula don’t know who LS&S is. He said of the Escondido library: “This is not a great library,” and concluded, “The $400,000 is a real savings. I don’t care about the profits LS&S will make, I care about the savings for the city.”
After listening to Abed, Councilmember Diaz quipped, “If you place so much stock in the opinions of the people of Temecula you should run to represent them.” She said she was discouraged that the council was ignoring so many of Escondido’s residents.
“Four hundred thousand seems like a lot but it’s actually less than one half of one percent of the budget compared to the loss of goodwill. It will take a long time to rebuild that goodwill.”
Her voice shaking, Diaz said she had been inspired by Masson’s vision of building a great new library. “I ran for the board for that vision and now I feel like I wasted my time. John, don’t waste my time! If we move forward, the community is not going to trust us. We are losing the people who use those services.” The Escondido library was the first place she visited when she moved here. “The core of a city to me is the library,” she said.
She said she worried about the city’s liability to lawsuit if it took the action, and said Escondido has spent too much money on legal battles. “I’m not running for anything. I’m not sure I want to be here. I won’t support this. I will never support this and if it moves forward I can’t support a bond.”
Morasco’s “no” vote was the surprise of the evening. He said he had never received so many comments, “that were off-base. This has been eating at me. I’ve never lost more sleep on any issue than I have on this one.”
He resented the implication that he was not trustworthy. He said he has read up on what a city manager is supposed to do: advise the city council, and said that Epp had done that job. Epp would not have done his job properly if he hadn’t brought this proposal to the council, he said.
He insisted that council members don’t consult each other before votes. “When someone says I don’t do this I lose sleep and when this started I said to people, ‘What the heck are you talking about?’ ” He said his reputation had been harmed by what someone else had said that he said about the issue—when he didn’t say it. “The vitriol is really astounding!”
He concluded, “While people said I was doing all these things, the city manager was telling me nothing in advance.” He said he finds out everything he can about an issue before he votes on it. “I want you to understand that this isn’t something that is a slam dunk. We were still getting information that we wanted before we vote.”
Outsourcing is not by itself a bad thing, he said. “We outsource up the wazoo. We have no choice. We are asking for RFP’s all the time. We do it because we have to, even though we hate to see money leave the city.”
He said he doesn’t want the library to stay the same. “I want it cleaned up. The Escondido library facility is one of my least favorite facilities.”
Morasco said he didn’t have enough answers to his questions to vote to start negotiations with LS&S. He said he was concerned about sabotaging a library bond.
John Masson said he wants to go forward with pushing a library bond with the community. He said he didn’t understand people who would withhold volunteering or donations because they don’t like privatizing the library. “It irks me to hear that you would change just because different people are running it,” he said.
He said he supports a contract, but he also wants accountability from LS&S. “If we end up hiring LS&S what matters is the passion of the people,” he said.