[Image via delmarvanow]
I write about lots of policy battles on this blog – partisan, federal/state/local, separation of powers between branches – but every now and then I find one I’ve never seen before that’s worth sharing. Such is the case in Wicomico County, MD on the state’s Eastern Shore, where the library and the county executive are fighting over access to the library building. DelmarvaNow has more:
A battle over the lower floor of the Wicomico County Library erupted this week after library officials refused to allow County Executive Bob Culver access to space he wants to use to store voting machines.
Culver hand-delivered a letter Friday to Library Director Andrea Berstler with a June 15 deadline to vacate 3,300 square feet in the Entrepreneur Center.
Library officials are standing their ground.
“We have simply refused to do that,” said Richard Keenan, chairman of the Library Board of Trustees.
On Monday, the board sent a letter back to Culver refusing to give keys or access codes to county staff, he said. State law and library bylaws specify the library board has control of the library system.
Indeed, this dispute appears to be a result of the executive not taking an original “no” for an answer:
The dispute over the lower floor has been ongoing for several months, with the library trustees objecting to Culver’s plan since the beginning.
“It is our belief that library property should be used solely for library purposes, and should not be appropriated by another municipal entity which as no connection with library services designed to aid and assist our community,” Keenan said in a Jan. 7 letter to Culver.
Culver initially said he needed 10,000 square feet to house both the voting machines and the elections office, but library officials told Culver the existing space could not accommodate his needs. In the letter delivered on Friday, he said he needed 3,300 square feet for the voting machines only.
The executive’s argument is that using the library is a cost-effective way to (temporarily) meet a new need:
After the state of Maryland changed to a paper ballot system, the county is now required to store the machines in a secure climate-controlled environment. Currently, they are in a rented space at a local shopping center, but Culver said he can save between $75,000 and $100,000 per year by relocating them to a county-owned building…
In a press release issued Monday afternoon, Culver said that using space the county already owns is a financially sound decision and in no way interferes with the operation of the library or the Wor-Wic Continuing Education Center.
“My job is to save taxpayers money,” Culver said.
The plan to use the space is temporary since the county’s capital improvement plan includes $1.1 million for a new Board of Elections office, he said.
It doesn’t help, though, that the executive is essentially telling the library that their plan for the space doesn’t make sense:
The lower level space at the library is “not utilized to the fullest,” Culver said Monday. The space once housed the Eastern Shore Regional Library offices, but after they moved out the county library staff “squatted down there,” he said.
Two years ago, the library board asked the county to fund a startup Entrepreneur Center in the space vacated by the Regional Library. The County Council approved funding for a year, but did not renew it for a second year because Salisbury University now has a center.
The library isn’t backing down, soliciting help from community groups to generate opposition to the plan:
Friends of Wicomico County Libraries sent out an email Monday morning asking supporters to write to Culver and members of the County Council to oppose the plan.
“The Wicomico County Executive plans on taking control of the Entrepreneur Center, located on the lower level of the library, and using it to store voting machines. He believes that the library should not be involved in supporting businesses and that storing voting machines is a better use of this space than library programs, adult education classes, and business workshops,” the email read.
Kevin Justice of the nonprofit M4Reactor, which had planned to use some of the space this summer for a youth program, said he received the email and sent a letter to Culver.
“It came as a shock to me,” Justice said.
The group had a memorandum of understanding with the library to run a children’s science and technology program starting in July. Now he will need to scramble to find another space, he said.
This may seem like a very locality-specific dispute, but it’s actually emblematic of the ongoing struggle that election offices nationwide have to balance operational needs like equipment storage with limited budgets. In the current fiscal environment, those tight budgets are common across many local programs – meaning that any effort to expand election operations ends up being (or at least being characterized as) a zero-sum game.
I’ll be watching to see if and how this dispute gets resolved – and if it will require the intervention of the county council. Until then, the keys and access codes to that lower level are likely the most jealously-guarded items at the Wicomico County Library.
Stay tuned …