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City of Airheads: Villaraigosa Dismantles L.A.'s Vaunted Library System

Angry librarians and library lovers protest Villaraigosa's unprecedented fiscal attack on the L.A. library system.
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI

As a student at John Marshall High School in Los Feliz, Noel Alumit, who would go on to write the critically acclaimed novel Letters to Montgomery Clift, often headed straight for the public library when school got out. A member of the speech team, Alumit loved conducting research — but he had a much more important, and personal, need for the city library.

"I found Under the Rainbow: Growing Up Gay, by Arnie Kantrowitz" sitting on a shelf, Alumit says. He was 15, the child of Filipino immigrants, and secretly trying to come to terms with being gay. "I would go to the library and read a section of it, then come back anotherr day and start where I left off. There was no way I could bring it home." The book became an important part of his development. "It was," he says, "the first time I ever read a book like that."

And, Alumit remembers, "The thing about libraries was that it was a place to get information for free."

Today, students in Los Angeles are still venturing to public libraries — and in huge numbers. A recent survey by the Los Angeles Public Library system shows that 90,000 young people, or 15,000 students a day, visit one of the city's 73 libraries every week. With most LAUSD schools starting up this week, libraries soon will be packed.

Many public library systems — the five biggies are Boston, New York, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles — have faced an ugly two years of recession-spawned budget cuts and trimmed hours. Yet political leaders who control the purse strings for the biggest cities fought and saved their libraries from severe harm.

The city that has not done that is Los Angeles.

Here, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa executed an unprecedented, and punishing, raid on the libraries. Last spring he convinced the City Council to close the city's central and eight regional libraries on Sundays, then slashed $22 million from the 2010-11 budget and closed all 73 libraries on Mondays beginning July 19. Library officials say as many as 15,000 youths — plus an untold number of adults — have been turned away every closed day this summer.

Unlike the angry City Council in New York, which successfully fought a large library budget cut proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti and 4th District City Councilman Tom LaBonge, chairman of the council's Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee, quickly caved on Villaraigosa's proposed 2010 budget, of which the library cuts were a part.

Then, joining Garcetti and LaBonge, who claim that every bit of fat had been cut citywide, forcing them to shutter libraries, the council voted 10-3 to approve the mayor's budget. Voting yes were Garcetti, LaBonge, Ed Reyes, Paul Krekorian, Paul Koretz, Bernard Parks, Jan Perry, Herb Wesson, Bill Rosendahl and Greig Smith. Only Richard Alarcon, Janice Hahn and Jose Huizar voted no. (Dennis Zine and Tony Cardenas were absent.)

The cuts are radical, and unlike anything seen in a big U.S. city in this recession. Los Angeles now joins the dying city of Detroit as the only significant U.S. municipality to close down its entire library system twice weekly — a choice Detroit leaders made during the early-1980s recession, and from which its cultural core seems never to have recovered.

L.A. Weekly also has determined, after surveying 20 of America's largest cities, that only Los Angeles has chosen to close its central library for two days a week. A handful of cities — Dallas, San Diego, Nashville and Houston — are closing their central libraries one day each week to meet their budgets but stopped well short of closing twice weekly a facility that all metropolises consider to be a cultural jewel.

Pausing uncomfortably over the situation in L.A., Indianapolis–Marion County Public Library CEO Laura Bramble says her city's political leaders made certain all of its libraries remain open daily despite the deep fiscal crunch. As for L.A., she says, "We're going to have to decide our priorities as a society."

Sara Ring, a Los Feliz freelance writer who takes her 18-month-old son to the children's area of her local library because it's a safe, free place to play, is more direct: "L.A. is known as a city of airheads. Then we go and cut the library budget. It doesn't send a great message to the rest of the country."

Erika Caswell, a librarian at the Washington Irving Branch in Mid-City, calls the action by the council and mayor "a travesty," and refers to the situation over the summer as awful. She says, "Mondays were our busiest day. It's so crazy now, because the library hasn't been open for two days, and everyone comes rushing in on Tuesday."

One ominous result, already, in rougher neighborhoods of Los Angeles: "Kids don't have anywhere to go after school" on Mondays, Caswell says.

 

Elyse Barrere, a librarian in Atwater Village, is haunted by what's unfolding in South Central Los Angeles, where she once worked, at the Vernon branch. There, hundreds of Latino and black students typically sought a quiet homework haven after school. "I just keep thinking about those kids," she says. "The library was a neutral territory where the gangs didn't really come in. It makes me worry about them. It could be a very bad situation."

Barrere has sharp words for Villaraigosa, remembering how he grinned for the cameras at openings of new city libraries — all of them funded by L.A. voters long before he took office: "The mayor should know better!"

Library officials estimate that so far, thousands of low-income, mostly minority young people who rely on city libraries have been shut out. Now, with most LAUSD schools starting class this week, teachers are assigning homework to hundreds of thousands of students, many of whom don't have the necessary Internet access. The problems will become acute.

Perhaps worse than that, Villaraigosa, Garcetti, LaBonge and other council members insist they'd already cut all the fat from the city budget and had no choice. In that claim, they aren't being straight.

In truth, the City Council barely quibbled over $18.5 million it handed to Villaraigosa this year for his richly endowed and experimental GRYD, the Gang Reduction and Youth Development program. (It gets millions more in grants and private money.) And in 2010, Villaraigosa will spend $7.7 million on his personal staff salaries, nearly enough to reopen all 73 city libraries on Mondays.

GRYD is a still-unproven new program beset by troubles and secrecy. According to a recent audit by City Controller Wendy Greuel, nobody knows if GRYD is working. One of the key problems is that Villaraigosa's team has failed to create a way to accurately judge whether GRYD keeps anyone out of gangs. A two-month investigation by journalist Matthew Fleischer at the L.A. Justice Report found that "the mayor and the City Council's confidence in GRYD's central programs isn't grounded in quantifiable facts."

Moreover, there's no evidence that the Summer Night Lights program, which keeps dangerous parks lit late at night to encourage recreation — and which is touted by the mayor as a GRYD gang-prevention program — is really reducing gang membership or crime.

GRYD's $18.5 million publicly funded price-tag is sky-high.

Last year, according to the Mayor's Office, 2,702 at-risk 10- to 15-year-olds were enrolled in GRYD prevention services, which spends about $12 million in public funds annually, and 825 older youths were enrolled in GRYD intervention services, which spends about $6 million in taxpayer money yearly.

By the Weekly's calculations, Los Angeles taxpayers are shelling out $5,245 for each at-risk youth enrolled in GRYD. Reopening the 64 branch libraries on Mondays and the nine big libraries on Sundays and Mondays would cost just $10 million, according to Peter Persic, the library system's public relations and marketing director. With Los Angeles libraries serving up to 15,000 children daily, that works out to a cost to taxpayers of just $6.40** per child annually — probably to greater effect.

But GRYD wasn't the only noncrucial service showered with riches this year — even as the City Council and Villaraigosa claimed every ounce of excess had been cut and libraries had to be shuttered.

Villaraigosa has expanded his personal staff to a record 206 people, including 12 "deputy mayors." By comparison, Mayor James Hahn employed 121 staffers, and Richard Riordan had 114. Villaraigosa's excesses have spilled over to Reyes, Krekorian, Zine, LaBonge, Koretz, Cardenas, Alarcon, Parks, Perry, Wesson, Rosendahl, Smith, Garcetti, Huizar and Hahn. This year, the 15 council members will spend $19.6 million on personal staffs totaling about 285 people. The 491 personal staff for Villaraigosa and the council is more than the 469 employees on the White House Office staff.

L.A.'s parents and librarians seem to understand something that Villaraigosa and the City Council don't grasp: Public libraries have long been the best magnets for pulling in at-risk children.

Sherice Norris, a teacher and member of the Watts Neighborhood Council, lives with her husband and five children not far from the Watts Branch Library. Her kids all have library cards. Many in Watts still don't own computers, so children and parents use the library for Internet access. "That Monday is real crucial because you have [school] assignments from that day that need to be done," Norris says. "In the lower-income areas with high crime, libraries are a safe haven for kids. ... It's going to hit the community hard."

This is almost certainly not what Angelenos wanted from municipal belt-tightening. In 1998, 17 years after Detroit closed its libraries two days a week, L.A. voters overwhelmingly approved a $178.3 million bond measure that has helped build one of the largest and most modern public library systems in the U.S.

 

Now, critics say, Villaraigosa and the City Council have turned their backs on that progress.

Riordan, who was mayor in 1998, and for whom the towering downtown landmark Richard J. Riordan Central Library is named, sees the closures as a moral issue. "Every child has a God-given right to compete in this society," he says, "and to use tools to help them." With free computers, Internet access and librarian-sponsored homework assistance, Los Angeles libraries, in Riordan's eyes, are among society's essential tools.

Echoing Riordan, Librarians' Guild President Roy Stone can barely contain his disgust at what has unfolded this summer, and what is expected to unfold for years to come: bleak, dark libraries in each of L.A.'s communities every Sunday and Monday. "Villaraigosa's lack of leadership has been a disaster for the city," Stone says. "These cuts are going to take generations to recover from."

Martin Gomez, who heads the Los Angeles Public Library system as city librarian, has worked at public libraries across the country, including a stint in Brooklyn. He says L.A., with its large, poorly educated immigrant population and high unemployment, faces challenges unlike any city in the nation.

"L.A. has such an educational need," Gomez explains. "The educational needs of its citizens, whether they are formal students in public or private school, or they are people who are engaged in lifelong learning or kind of retraining themselves because they're out of jobs or putting job applications in ... the public library has a role, a very significant role, in helping the community become better educated."

Some Angelenos may think Gomez is simply defending an outdated, soon-to-be-extinct institution, with its jammed bookshelves of hardcover books and packed archives of magazines and newspapers. They would be wrong.

Reflecting the effects of the recession, visits to Los Angeles public libraries jumped from 16 million in 2007 to 16.6 million in 2008 and 17 million in 2009. In a city of 4 million, there's a major demand not just for free books to read but for free wireless and Internet access.

Riordan, who has floated the idea of a volunteer program to help with staffing shortages, says with some frustration: "I want to get a lot of people to march on City Hall, and I'll join them, and ask the [city fathers], 'What are you doing to this city?' "

One answer to Riordan's question might be that Los Angeles City Hall's bureaucracy, and the political leaders who run it, are not merely clinging to expensive pet projects like GRYD and excesses like their vast personal staffs. They are also proving unable to collect the basic monies owed to city coffers.

In July, City Controller Greuel revealed that the city has not created a centralized billing process — after years and years of talking about it — and managed to collect only 53 percent of its bills in fiscal year 2008-09, losing $260.4 million that year.

"L.A.'s elected officials ignore fundamentally challenged [city] departments," says Paul Hatfield, a city budget expert who's treasurer of Neighborhood Council Valley Village. "They have no desire to face reality. Now it's caught up with them. They can't avoid it anymore."

The 73 libraries needed only a relative pittance this year — just $8 million — to remain open on Mondays, for example. But no council member, including the six up for re-election next March — Krekorian, LaBonge, Cardenas, Parks, Wesson and Huizar — has a plan to fix a bill-collection system officials have long known is largely inoperable. Krekorian can be forgiven as a council newcomer, but the rest have been on alert for much longer.

In 2007, then-Controller Laura Chick warned that hundreds of millions of dollars had been lost. Recently, the council finally approved a plan for collecting a fraction of that — about $2 million in unpaid ambulance bills per year. A broader plan to collect $274 million in other unpaid bills over six years was never approved.

Press aides for Villaraigosa and Garcetti maintain a firm public relations line to explain how Los Angeles earned its new black eye as the only big U.S. city to shutter its library system twice weekly in response to the recession: "The mayor was trying to do what needed to be done to keep the city solvent," says Villaraigosa spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton.

Garcetti's spokesman, Yusef Robb, says: "The council moved heaven and earth to keep the libraries open five days a week. ... Tough choices were made."

Librarians' Guild President Stone, who represents some 350 library workers, doesn't buy any of this. Stone says Villaraigosa is "unconcerned" about the library system. He also feels that Garcetti, Budget and Finance Committee members Bernard Parks, Greig Smith and Bill Rosendahl, and the other 12 council members are "browbeaten by the mayor."

 

Stone says of the City Council: "They did nothing. Zero."

A look at the 2010-11 budget approved by the City Council shows that the mayor's library cuts sailed through unaltered. Nothing remotely like that occurred in New York, Chicago or Boston, where budget fights waged by concerned mayors or vibrant city councils restored substantial amounts of library funding.

But Los Angeles does not have what most people would call a "vibrant" city government. An eye-opening report by the think tank Center for Governmental Studies this year revealed that 14 council members — Reyes, Zine, LaBonge, Koretz, Cardenas, Alarcon, Parks, Perry, Wesson, Rosendahl, Smith, Garcetti, Huizar and Hahn — voted unanimously 99.993 percent of the time in nearly 1,854 votes studied in 2009. (Krekorian is too new to be part of the study.)

Now, the group Los Angeles Clean Sweep, led by former Los Angeles Daily News Editor Ron Kaye, is planning to field grassroots candidates in the March 2011 primary to take on the unanimous voting bloc that controls the City Council and takes almost all of its important cues from the mayor.

Fed-up taxpayers like Jason Reynolds of Atwater Village might be open to listening to Clean Sweep. A music-industry consultant with a house payment and a 4-year-old son, Reynolds is very unhappy about the Monday closure of the library where his boy loved the now-canceled free art classes. "I don't believe for a second they couldn't find the money," he says of the Los Angeles City Council.

On a recent Monday afternoon, Haley Hill, a freelance graphic artist, and Eric Carlson, an English-language tutor, stand outside the Edendale Branch Library on Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park, across from the Brite Spot diner. The Silver Lake residents are in their 20s and visit the library often. "I get all of my movies from the library," says Carlson, who lives on a tight budget. He uses the free Internet access to prepare his students' lessons since he doesn't own a computer.

When they walked to the Edendale branch, neither realized that Los Angeles' public libraries — which already started closing on Sundays last April — had shut down on Mondays for the foreseeable future. They were angry and perplexed when they came upon the locked doors.

"It's really shitty because it's something that affects so many people in the area," says Hill, who often sees lots of children in the library. "They always cut the most important things."

It's not only Angelenos who are using libraries more than ever. Library systems across the nation are seeing spikes in use. "Americans are visiting libraries in gigantic numbers," says New York Public Library President Paul LeClerc, who oversees one of the most renowned systems in the world. "The more libraries that are open, the more people will use them."

LeClerc points to a study published in March by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, "Opportunity for All," which found 169 million visits by Americans to a public library in 2009 — 77 million to get free access to the Internet. People ages 11 to 18 are the among most active Internet users at libraries, about 11.8 million of them.

Many are teenagers doing homework, the study finds. And 61 percent of young people between 14 and 24 who live below the federal poverty line are using library computers and the Internet for educational purposes. "They don't have the money to pay for that access," LeClerc says.

In February, Villaraigosa held a press conference at the Silver Lake Branch Library, telling journalists the grim news that funding for city libraries was on the chopping block. Then-KABC news reporter Michael Linder taped the mayor as saying: "We no longer have the revenues to be able to support the level of services that we provide."

He then declared, "No big city in the country has a library system compared to ours."

That's true now but not in the boastful, positive way he asserted.

Stone says members of the Library Commission — most of them political appointees of Villaraigosa's — were far too quick to go along with his cuts. "We couldn't get anybody to push back," Stone says of the five-member commission. "We tried to tell them what was happening, but they didn't listen."

In an interview with the Weekly, Library Commission President Tyree Wieder, a former president of Los Angeles Valley College, insists: "It was necessary due to [the city's] financial situation. They looked at it very, very hard.

"The City Council members and the mayor were in a very tough situation," and she even insists that Villaraigosa and the City Council in no way targeted the Los Angeles Public Library system.

"They picked on the smallest kid on the block," scoffs Neighborhood Council Valley Village member Hatfield, upon hearing Wieder's strained denial. "They're more afraid of neighborhood councils than the library union."

 

Jay Handal, chairman of the West Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, says, "They're attacking the low-hanging fruit, as opposed to having a plan. They knew the [librarians] didn't have the people to put the screws to the mayor and the City Council."

During his fiscal raid on the libraries, Villaraigosa proposed a $75.9 million general fund subsidy for the libraries, which the City Council approved. That was the exact amount Villaraigosa was legally required to submit due to a City Charter mandate — not a penny more. That amount, combined with the $6.8 million the libraries generate through fees and fines, created an $82.7 million operating budget.

The City Council then agreed with Villaraigosa's proposal to force the library system to reimburse the city's general fund for its overhead and utilities costs of $22 million, taking it out of the $82.7 million operating budget.

No other city agency except the Department of Recreation and Parks has to cough up that kind of overhead reimbursement.

The highly controversial practice — in essence, an internal tax on one department singled out for punishment, even as several other departments' staffers were being given substantial raises — began in 2008-09. This year, the same Villaraigosa scheme left the libraries an operating budget of $60.7 million, a devastating cut that forced city libraries to survive on $1.7 million less they got back in 2002-03 — when fewer libraries existed and thus fewer librarians were needed.

Sherice Norris, the teacher and mother in Watts, had trusted the mayor and City Council to do the right thing during the budget debates, but upon learning that only the city libraries and Recreation and Parks are being forced to pay the general fund back for their utilities and overhead costs, she grows angry. "I didn't know [city elected leaders] were going to stoop that low," she says.

"We need to make the City Council and mayor accountable for what they've been doing," Norris says. "We need to stand up and fight."

The 28 percent library staff cut hit this year even as Villaraigosa and City Council members — the highest-paid mayor, and the highest-paid City Council, in the U.S. — touted their own, exceedingly modest, voluntary salary cuts. While making sure to point that out to the press, they eliminated a record 328 full-time library positions, including 94 librarians and 190 clerical staff who check out, sort and shelve books. With such a major, sudden staff shortage, L.A. libraries had to close twice weekly instead of once a week, and reduce their remaining hours.

And if that weren't enough, the libraries were forced to reduce book-purchasing funds to a paltry $6.8 million per year.

During the 2001-02 recession, outgoing Mayor Riordan ensured that the libraries spent $16.8 million on books, about $4.50 per resident. Riordan has personally spent millions of dollars on an Eastside foundation that teaches adults to read and write English; he keeps a personal library of some 40,000 books, and for years led a book club with Michael York and Alan Alda. He's a big reader.

Villaraigosa, by contrast, spends many of his nights out on the town, is not a big reader even of the policy papers a mayor typically is expected to understand, and doesn't seek out the quiet studiousness of libraries.

In a city of 4 million people, Los Angeles' book expenditures have plunged to $1.70 per citizen under Villaraigosa — not enough to buy the Sunday New York Times.

Gomez, the city librarian, tells the Weekly, "It's been the most challenging year of my career. We have gone through a lot of significant changes. Not only in the reduction of hours but also our shrinking of the workforce. So it's been a lot to deal with."

Appointed by Villaraigosa in June 2009, Gomez, a passionate public library advocate with extensive experience, grew up in Compton, graduated from UCLA and began his 30-year career in the San Diego Public Library system. He remains optimistic that L.A. libraries will still act as the "people's university," where immigrants learn English, unemployed people search for jobs on the Internet and students get the homework help they need.

But he has to have the staff for that, and his workforce has been reduced from 1,156 full-time positions to 828. Asked by the Weekly if the mayor and City Council really worked "very, very hard," as Library Commission President Wieder puts it, to avoid these deep cuts, Gomez avoids the question.

"I want to believe that we're first in line when restoration comes," Gomez says. "I hope the community will let their elected officials know how important the library is."

Like neighborhood activists Hatfield and Handal, former Daily News Editor Kaye, whose political action committee, L.A. Clean Sweep, plans to financially support candidates to run against council incumbents Krekorian, LaBonge, Cardenas, Parks, Wesson and Huizar next year, says it's clear that Villaraigosa targeted the public libraries and the Department of Recreation and Parks.

 

"It's a fact they hit these departments harder than other departments," Kaye declares.

And when city tax revenues do finally pick up, many City Hall observers believe that money will not be initially directed to libraries but to Villaraigosa's political obsessions: the police and fire departments.

Complicating things for the libraries, and Angelenos who have been shut out of them, is the fact that city budget experts, including 8th District City Councilman Bernard Parks and City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, say Los Angeles probably won't see an economic turnaround for two or three more years, perhaps longer.

In other big U.S. cities, cooler heads prevailed this year. Far more modest cuts were made to the rest of the nation's significant municipal library systems. Deep cuts made no sense to the political leadership in Chicago, for example, where the libraries got an operating budget of $97 million — 93 percent from the city and 7 percent from the state.

In 2009, Chicago's budget was $104.8 million. This year's funding represents a drop of only $7.8 million, with three libraries, including its central library, open seven days a week and 71 of its 74 libraries open six days.

Stating the obvious, Chicago Public Library spokeswoman Ruth Lednicer says, "Mayor Richard Daley and our City Council really understand how important our libraries are for the community."

In New York, Mayor Bloomberg planned a major, $38 million budget cut for the New York Public Library, which operates on $254 million a year and oversees the world-famous main library on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, among other libraries.

But unlike in Los Angeles, the New York City Council fought Bloomberg spiritedly, restoring $28 million to the budget. As a result, all New York Public Library branches are open six days, with the main library open every day. "We had enormous support from the City Council," says NYPL President LeClerc.

In Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino restored more than $900,000 this year, when the state of Massachusetts cut library funding. "It showed libraries were important to him," says Boston Library spokeswoman Gina Perille. With 27 libraries, including a central library in Copley Square, Boston's system operates with $41.1 million. All branches are open six days a week, and the city's beloved central library remains open every day. Perille says Boston has no intention of closing libraries on additional days — especially not during the school year.

Cindy Mediavilla, an expert on the history of public libraries in California, notes that during the Great Depression, libraries were packed with out-of-work citizens. With L.A. mired in stubborn, double-digit unemployment, Mediavilla says, it's "rather shortsighted to not fund libraries during these dark times. People need access to computers to apply for jobs."

Sari Feldman, former president of the Public Library Association and executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library system in Ohio, says the assault by city fathers on the library budget in L.A. is a prime example of how some elected officials "don't understand the services we provide every day. Working-class people and people out of work are the ones hardest hit by the cuts to libraries."

Critics call it a slash-and-burn tactic with no eye for the future. "They don't look far ahead when they budget," says Hatfield, of the mayor and council, "and when they don't look far ahead, they can't get ahead of the budgetary problems" — some of which they created.

Adds Clean Sweep's Kaye: "It reflects the values of City Hall in not caring about the general public‚ who don't have an advocate at City Hall."

A few years ago, Erica Silverman, a writer of children's books, decided she wanted to be a city librarian. "I've spent my whole life in libraries," she says. She went to school, made the grades and eventually got a job at the Edendale Branch Library in Echo Park, where screenwriters, students, English-language learners, seniors and others gather to learn or hang out in a friendly environment off the streets.

"I think libraries can be taken for granted because they do what they do quietly," Silverman says. She wonders if Mayor Villaraigosa, City Council President Garcetti and the rest of the City Council truly understand how a public library's numerous services help a community to enrich itself, especially in poor neighborhoods. "Access to information is important to a democracy," she says.

But firsthand experience also has taught her that open, easily accessible libraries create not just better cities and better cultures but better humans.

"I have interactions all the time with people," Silverman says. "I see kids' eyes light up when they find a book. I know we're creating lifelong readers."

 

** Corrected from earlier version which stated the cost to reopen libraries as 65 cents per child.

Contact Patrick Range McDonald at pmcdonald@laweekly.com.


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