Loudoun supervisors could take over direct control of the Loudoun County Public Library, putting an end to the separate, governing Board of Trustees that has overseen the library system since its creation in the 1970s.
The discussion comes after a summer that saw county supervisors clash with the Library Board of Trustees when the county sought to take over libraries to use for daytime childcare centers while schools are closed. By the time anybody in the library system knew that was a possibility, the decision had already been made. Although the Board of Trustees governs the library, the county funds the library and builds its buildings. County attorneys said that meant in a state of emergency they could repurpose those buildings as needed. Ultimately, the library buildings have not been needed for that program, as the county has seen low enrollment in its childcare program, which launched only days before online classes began.
Finance committee Chairman Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) said on Oct. 13 the discussion is not a result of that exchange, and has been coming for a while.
“As much as it might seem like this is somewhat of a reaction to the kind of discussion that we had, it’s really a lot more than that, and it’s a discussion how we can potentially improve our library services overall,” Letourneau said. Now, he said, libraries often function much like community centers.
By most measures those library services are not suffering—Loudoun County’s public library system is considered one of the best in the country, regularly winning recognition from the Library Journal and the National Association of Counties, pointed out Interim Board of Trustees Chairwoman Christina Olorunda. She also pointed out to the finance committee that Supervisor Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling), County Administrator Tim Hemstreet, library Executive Director Chang Liu and then-library board Chairman Mark Miller led a panel discussion at an American Library Association in Washington, DC, on how independent Boards of Trustees and Boards of Supervisors can successfully collaborate.
But county staff members said taking direct control of the libraries would let the county pursue its own initiatives more easily.
“The challenge, if you want to use that term, would be, no matter what you come up with, if you want to use that space, you are going to the Board of Trustees and you’re asking for their concurrence,” said Deputy County Administrator Charles Yudd. “… Sometimes you have a collision of programming goals.”
And Hemstreet said the Board of Supervisors, in effect, funds everything the library system does, as well as extending services like payroll, Human Resources, and general services to the library.
And with the possibility of collective bargaining coming to Loudoun’s public employees, Hemstreet said, the question becomes: Whose employees are they?
“Who should they be discussing things like pay and benefits and working conditions with?” Hemstreet said. “My recommendation to you [the Board of Supervisors] is that it should be you, the entity that provides for everything.”
And some supervisors said it fit within a discussion they launched at the beginning of the year about possibly changing Loudoun’s form of government, a debate that began with talks of standing up a county police department to take over law enforcement from the Sheriff’s Office.
Supervisors on the finance committee voted unanimously to send the discussion to the full Board of Supervisors.
“I’m not seeing a downside at this point to eliminating a structural, bureaucratic step to achieve what everyone wants to achieve, which is to have a high-functioning library system,” Letourneau said. “We have that. We have an excellent library system, and so this isn’t necessarily a reaction to that, but we’ve had more and more discussions, and more and more momentum is built every year, about ways to use libraries in circumstances that are beyond the traditional approach.”
Supervisor Caleb A. Kershner (R-Catoctin) said he was “largely persuaded” by arguments against the idea by current and former library trustees.
“There’s a lot to keep up with in this particular position, and I think they have a specific passion and some specific insight as library board members that we would never have, so I hope that in these discussions that they would remain a governing body,” Kershner said.
Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) vowed to bring all parties to the table for the discussion.
“I’ll be the first to say that in the past we haven’t opened things up for discussion, and got all the opinions and all the inputs, and we were wrong for that, and I said that about a thousand times,” Randall said. But she said this discussion will include the Library Board of Trustees and the public.
“This is how we start a discussion,” Randall said. “We start it by putting it on the agenda on this committee, and then moving it to the full board, and then bringing everybody into the discussion.”