SOUTH PORTLAND — With library employees fully unionized and working under a signed contract with the city, the library director and advisory board are again poised to discuss the sensitive topic of holiday hours at the Main Library on Broadway.
That effort, however, could stoke a debate over the Library Advisory Board’s role in making decisions about library operations and staffing.
The current holiday policy, instituted in 1977, allows the Main Library to close on the Saturday before a state holiday in addition to being closed on the Monday holiday.
In 2006, the Library Advisory Board voted to rescind the policy in response to residents who found it confusing and wanted the library open. Between five and eight Saturdays would be affected by the change in policy in any given year.
The effort to rescind that holiday policy, along with dissatisfaction with the former library director, appeared to have been a catalyst for staff unionization. In deference to that process, which ultimately lasted three years, the board decided to put its effort to rescind the holiday policy on hold until the union was formed and a contract signed.
Since the city and library union agreed on a contract over the summer, the board is now poised to take up the holiday policy at its next meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 14, at 7 p.m. in the basement of City Hall.
LAB member Shay Bellas said people frequently complain to her about the holiday schedule, saying it doesn’t make any sense and that the library should either change the policy or do a better job notifying residents that it will be closed the entire weekend before a holiday – as it will be this Saturday, before Columbus Day. Many residents show up, she said, only to find the library doors locked.
“They forget and so they show up at the library prepared to do what they came there for (only) to be disappointed that they can’t,” Bellas said. “They feel their time is wasted and they are being deprived of a service and it doesn’t make sense to them that the service wouldn’t be available on Saturday because Monday is a holiday.”
Library Director Kevin Davis said he has seen people come to the library on a Saturday when it is closed only to leave disappointed. Since the library is a public institution, Davis said it should change the policy to provide the service demanded by the public.
“The library needs to be open when the public wants the library to be open,” he said.
Opening the library on a Saturday before a holiday, Davis said, would not cost the city any additional money, because library employees are essentially getting paid on that day anyway. Workers originally scheduled for Saturday before a holiday can pick up an extra shift throughout the week to get their full hours, whether they’re needed or not.
“There’s no savings to the city by having it closed and there’s no cost to the city for having it open,” Davis said.
Davis said the Branch Library, on Wescott Road, voluntarily did away with the policy that allowed it to close on the Sunday before a holiday several years ago. As a result, Sunday is one of the busiest days of the week.
“Once (Sundays) became dependable, they became huge,” Davis said. “Business exploded. We do more business in those five hours than we do eight hours on a Monday.”
Tom Werley, a children’s librarian and leader of the local library union, would not comment when reached by phone on Wednesday. In an e-mail, however, Werley said that any attempt to rescind the holiday policy would require the city to enter into “impact negotiations” with the union. Those negotiations would likely center around staffing.
“It must be said that the holiday policy is not the most important issue facing the library from the union’s point of view,” Werley said. “Our number one issue is the shortage of staff.”
Two library workers, the teen librarian and a secretary, were laid off in the spring. Werley said standards set by the Maine Library Association recommend 14.2 full-time staffers for a library the size of South Portland’s, which only has the equivalent of 9.2 full-time employees.
Further complicating the matter is the current re-evaluation of LAB’s role in library operations. Historically the board’s role is strictly advisory to the library director, as in most public libraries, but the city ordinance to some suggests the board has final say on operational matters.
While Davis said he believes that operational decisions are ultimately the management’s decision to make after consulting with the board, Werley contends that these decisions are the board’s.
“The union has no objection to the library being open on Saturdays, but changing the policy must be done the right way,” Werley said. “First of all, it is still the responsibility of the Library Advisory Board to make decisions about the library’s hours. And now that we have a union, changes such as this must go through the process of impact bargaining.”
For now, Bellas said she intends to support Davis’ effort to change the library policy, but wants to make sure that the union’s issues are addressed.
“I will be voting to revoke the policy,” Bellas said. “But (I) wish to do so in a way that honors the reason the policy was put into place, which does not fall under my duties and responsibilities. But I will make sure is a part of the conversation.”
The union is generally suspicious of the city’s effort to re-evaluate LAB’s role in the decision-making process, said Sylvie Perry, of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Governments, the union for 13 library employees. Some staff members feel as though the city is trying to dilute the board’s powers, she said, and that would “further devastate staffing, and the ability to deliver services with support and pride, both of which have eroded drastically under the direction of the current administration.”