South Portland seeks clarity on library board's role ahead of union contract

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SOUTH PORTLAND — City officials are hoping to clarify the role of the city’s Library Advisory Board in anticipation of the first labor contract with the library union.

Library workers voted to unionize in 2006, but have since failed to reach a contract with the city. After a state mediator last year couldn’t resolve the impasse, the two groups in April conducted a fact-finding session before an independent panel overseen by the Maine Labor Relations Board.

Both the city and union now have the results of the fact-finding. If they fail to reach an agreement on their own, a resolution will be imposed through arbitration. 

Regardless of the outcome, the new union contract will likely affect operations at the library and, by extension, the role of the Library Advisory Board. 

City Manager Jim Gailey said the current ordinance has not been updated since it was first instituted in 1966. Many of the advisory board’s powers and duties, Gailey said, are more consistent with those of a board of trustees for a private library, rather than a taxpayer-funded public library.

The ordinance establishes a seven-member advisory committee for the library, comprised of resident volunteers appointed by the City Council for three-year terms.  

But the ordinance appears to give the board broad powers, including developing written policies to govern the operation and program of the library. Those duties include assisting in developing the budget, recommending salary schedules and classification of the library director and staff, and setting library hours, staff hours and holiday hours. 

Board members have expressed frustration about the lack of clarity around their role and their inability to improve library services. Some members say they have no interest in micromanaging library operations or conducting labor negotiations. 

“We’re there to improve services for the public,” board member Andrew Wallace said. “We’re not interested in labor disputes.”

Until a contract is reached with the library union, the board is limited in terms of the changes it can make because changes may directly affect working conditions at the library.

In the past, the board has tried to expand library hours and rescind a holiday policy that allows the library to close on the Saturday before a Monday holiday or after a Friday holiday. But those proposals have faced opposition from some staff members. 

The need for more user-friendly library hours and services were also highlighted by an independent expert’s report on how to improve the library services and facilities.

The lack of clarity around the board’s role and ongoing labor negotiations have contributed to what Wallace described as the board’s “very high” membership turnover.

During state-mediated negotiations between the union and city last summer, the board decided to cancel its meetings due to its inability to effect change. 

Gailey said he would like to see the board research the ordinances that govern other library boards in an effort to define its own role. As the group progresses, Gailey said the city attorney will become involved to ensure the ordinance complies with state labor laws. Any new ordinance would also have to be approved by the City Council.  

Board member Shay Bellas said she hopes that once the union contract is reached and responsibilities are clearly outlined, the group can begin making the changes the community wants in its library.

“There are a lot of things, from cosmetics to services, that need to be addressed, and it’s ambiguous as to whose responsibility it is to make that happen,” Bellas said. “It’s been difficult because the Library Advisory Board wants to bring to fruition all of the things our constituents want for their library and we haven’t been able to carry anything out.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or