Nutter to appeal library ruling

December 30, 2008 5:07:49 PM PST
A judge ruled Tuesday that Philadelphia's mayor cannot close 11 public library branches to save money because an ordinance requires City Council approve such actions. Common Pleas Judge Idee Fox heard more than a day of testimony before finding that the mayor is bound by a 1988 ordinance that prohibits him from closing any city-owned building without City Council's approval.

"If they tried to pull a fast one on us, they got caught," said Councilman Frank Rizzo.

The decision was at least a temporary victory for library advocates who had staged protests, blasted Mayor Michael Nutter at town meetings and eventually sued to keep the branches open, saying they are important resources to underprivileged communities.

The libraries had been slated to close Thursday in a move Nutter said could save about $8 million a year.

In court, city attorneys argued that the 1988 ordinance was invalid and that the city charter requires the mayor to balance the budget. They said the city faces a $1 billion deficit over the next five years.

The attorneys also argued that the branches could reopen as "knowledge centers" using private funding, meaning the buildings are not being closed.

But Fox rejected that argument. The branches still would be closed until that funding is secured.

Library advocate Katrina Clark said fellow supporters were jubilant.

"This is absolutely fabulous," said Clark, a teacher who frequently brings her students to one of the branches slated for closure. "Libraries are not just receptacles of books; they're places where community members meet, where people grow and learn."

Mayoral spokeswoman Aviva Kievsky said the administration would appeal.

Rizzo couldn't say if or when the Council might take up the matter; the next regular session begins Jan. 22. Several other council members did not immediately return calls for comment.

The mayor is making other budget cuts, including lowering limits on curbside trash collection, consolidating fire companies, closing 68 of 81 swimming pools, cutting back on snow removal and cutting funding to the annual New Year's Day Mummers Parade.

American Library Association president Jim Rettig said libraries work best as publicly funded entities with trained staff. "It makes as much sense to privatize your libraries as it does to privatize your police force," Rettig said.

To tell people to use another branch doesn't help, he added. "Each branch has its own character," Rettig said. "To say they can go to another branch - if that happens, there will be a real adjustment period."

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