The stunning news that the Jones Library has asked for a one-year delay in their $13.8 provisional grant from Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) towards a $35.8 million project was revealed in the Town Manager’s Report of 6-15-20.
Town Manager Paul Bockelman wrote “Library: The director met with the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners and requested a delay in awarding any grants for one year.”
Although the possibility of the MBLC allowing grant “pauses” was mentioned by Director Sharon Sharry at the recent Trustee meeting on 6/12/20, there was no indication that the Jones was actually requesting such a delay and, therefore, no discussion nor vote took place. The issue has not been discussed in previous Trustee meetings.
In response to an email, Sharry replied, “It was the waitlisted libraries which requested the delay…not just Amherst…due to COVID-19. No votes were taken in Amherst…I do not know if the other cities/Town took any votes.”
This is alarming. How are Trustee decisions being made if not in a public meeting? This is a significant development affecting the entire financial situation of the Town, and this decision certainly should have been discussed and voted upon according to the Open Meeting Law.
I also contacted the MBLC about this delay request. Laura Stara, Library Building Specialist, replied on 6/25/20 that the MBLC has been considering the possibility of not awarding provisional grants in FY21 since early in the COVID-19 crisis. The state Commissioners will discuss the issue further at their July 9th Board meeting, and it is not certain when they will make a decision.
The Jones is currently in second place on the grant waiting list. Stara stated that the first library, East Bridgewater, has also requested a delay. She added that the capital bond authorization for these grants has not yet been approved by the State. The MBLC currently has enough funding for one provisional grant, which is East Bridgewater. The order and procedures for waiting list awards will not change. If the Commissioners decide to pause awards in FY21, Amherst may receive a provisional grant in FY22.
The Library’s request for a delay in granting may also affect the upcoming vote by the Community Preservation Act Committee (CPAC) on Tuesday, June 30th, concerning a possible $1,000,000 grant to the Jones Library for new construction of the Special Collections department in the proposed library demolition/ expansion project.
Three members of the committee have written a Minority Report arguing against the appropriateness of this library’s grant application citing information from the state’s Community Preservation Coalition and the Massachusetts Department of Revenue. An opinion from the Town Counsel K-P Law Firm asserts that the Library’s proposal does meet legal CPA requirements.
A letter sent from “The Jones Library” to CPAC in support of the grant was unsigned. Sharry responded to an email inquiry asking who wrote and who approved the letter that Jones Library Inc. is the Trustees and the Library Director, and that the Trustees asked the Friends of the Jones to undertake the fundraising for the expansion/renovation project. “This rebuttal was written pursuant to that,” she said.
She added that the Trustees did not vote on the statement due to insufficient time to post a meeting but that “the positions espoused have been known to be those of the Library, and drafts were seen by the Library Director and the Chair of the Trustees.”
A rebuttal by CPAC members Robin Fordham and Sarah Eisinger to the Minority Report stated that Kent Faerber wrote the memo from the Jones.
This is another case of a significant library decision being made without a public meeting or Trustee vote and discussion. Kent Faerber serves as co-chair of the Friends of the Jones Library Capital Campaign Committee.
Faerber is a volunteer of the Friends of the Jones Library. This organization is now responsible for the capital campaign due to a recent Memorandum of Understanding with the Jones Library. However, the Friends is a totally separate non-profit 501(c)(3), and it is doubtful if Faerber can represent the Board of Trustees in such a manner.
So why did the Director ask for a grant delay? Is it because of COVID-19? Is it because the capital campaign is behind in raising the $6.1 million promised towards the Town’s share of $22 million? Is it because there are still no specific re-design plans for the demolition/expansion project? Is the Library stalling in the hopes that more than eight councilors who support the goals of Amherst Forward will be elected next time? It will take nine Councilors to accept the provisional MBLC grant.
Even more curious is the fact that during the Trustees’ 6-12-20 meeting, Board President Austin Sarat asked if the Council could approve the library project BEFORE a grant was given, then begin construction, and then be reimbursed at a later time when a grant was given. Sharry stated that this was legally possible.
One would hope that the Council would not consider such a scenario when there is only a basic demolition/expansion plan but no definitive re-design and no cost verification.
And why would the Library ask for a delay in granting and then explore asking the Council for a vote before a grant? Will this be discussed openly in a public meeting?
Terry S. Johnson is a retired Amherst teacher, blossoming poet, and a lifelong student of art, architecture, history, and languages.