Residents speak out on library conflict

MARSHALL For the Marshall-Lyon County Board, one of the big questions about the Marshall-Lyon County Library’s recent decision to leave the Plum Creek Regional Library System has to do with money. In particular, county commissioners need to decide whether or not to continue providing about one-third of the library’s annual funding. And if they do decide to continue funding MLCL, there’s still the question of meeting the county’s maintenance of effort toward other area libraries that are members of Plum Creek.

A lot of the feedback gathered at a public hearing Wednesday night wasn’t directly related to that question, but county commissioners did hear statements of support for both MLCL and Plum Creek, as well as plenty of questions as to why MLCL and Plum Creek were fighting in the first place.

Lyon County Board Vice Chairman Steve Ritter said commissioners were at the crowded hearing to listen.

“There will be no vote tonight,” Ritter said. Commissioners would consider the issue, and the public comments from the hearing, at its next regular meeting.

Ritter gave representatives from Plum Creek and MLCL each 15 minutes to speak, and then opened the floor to questions and comments.

Plum Creek Director Mark Ranum said he was also mainly at the hearing to listen.

“I had hoped a public meeting like this would happen,” Ranum said.

Ranum said the Plum Creek system provides member libraries with services including interlibrary loans and delivery, and Legacy grant-funded programming. The system’s mission is to connect libraries and library patrons with as many resources as possible, he said.

MLCL Board President Gwen Sturrock said that local support for MLCL has remained strong throughout its history and accounts for many of the community programs and services the library currently provides. Sturrock urged commissioners to continue providing monetary support to the library. Otherwise, she said, budget cuts could affect things like non-member fees, library staffing and hours.

During the open session, members of the public questioned why the two groups couldn’t get along.

The conflict has a complicated history. About a year ago, Plum Creek governing board members voted to cut interlibrary loan services to MLCL, in response to disputes over holding new library materials locally. MLCL board members, meanwhile, said their issues extended beyond that, to general concerns the amount of local autonomy Plum Creek member libraries had. Lyon County commissioners and the MLCL board voted first to announce their intent to leave Plum Creek, then to go through state mediation with the regional system. However, the Plum Creek board then voted to reject the finished mediation agreement and instead offered to keep MLCL as a member, provided MLCL obeyed all current and future Plum Creek policies. In June, the MLCL board voted first to accept the offer and then later rescinded that vote and opted to leave Plum Creek.

Currently MLCL, which includes libraries in Marshall, Cottonwood and Balaton, is operating without regional and state interlibrary loan services. However, Sturrock said the library is in talks with another large Minnesota library to do interlibrary loans.

On the county’s side of things, there’s a question about how to meet statutory requirements to support public libraries. State Librarian Jennifer Nelson said under state law, counties must give financial support to libraries participating in a regional library system. In Lyon County’s case, the minimum maintenance of effort is calculated at more than $200,000 a year. Before the split from Plum Creek, the county had met those requirements by funding MLCL.

MLCL patrons spoke up both for and against the library’s decision to leave Plum Creek. Some patrons, like Marshall resident Joe Amato, praised local efforts to support the library and the quality of work local people have done over the years.

However, Marshall resident Julie Lyons said it’s now harder for her children to get access to books for their accelerated reading program.

“We lose a lot by only having the books that are local,” she said.

Other MLCL patrons said they were afraid of losing more library services and selection, especially if the county stops funding MLCL.

Tom Runholt, a member of the MLCL Board and the Plum Creek Board, said trying to work with Plum Creek in recent years has been “a contentious and difficult experience.” Runholt said MLCL saw their positions on library policy to be in deep conflict with the system and Ranum’s management of it. He brought up Plum Creek’s counteroffer to the mediation agreement, which Ranum had drafted.

“We would be in the Plum Creek library system today, if it weren’t for the rejection of a good mediation agreement,” Runholt said.

“We had 18 opinions voting one way, in solidarity,” Ranum said of the Plum Creek Board’s vote. But, he said, without the mediation agreement, there was no path forward for MLCL to stay a member of Plum Creek. Ranum said the counteroffer was an attempt to preserve library services for MLCL patrons.

Several people, including directors of several Plum Creek member libraries, said the breakup had more to do with MLCL’s wishes than a loss of Plum Creek member autonomy.

“This whole idea that somehow Plum Creek is taking away our autonomy, it’s not true,” said Stephanie Hall, director of the Meinders Community Library in Pipestone. Hall and other librarians said they were also concerned that MLCL was not sharing its materials equally with fellow Plum Creek members.

Vanessa Hoffmann, director of the Morgan Public Library, said there were also concerns that the phrasing of the mediation agreement meant conflicts with MLCL were just going to continue, unresolved.

Nelson said the mediation agreement included terms about working to improve communication among Plum Creek members and working to develop conflict resolution policies.