Opinion: Jones Library Trustees Will Ask Town Councilors To Approve Their Demolition/Expansion Plan By April 30, 2021

Photo: flckr.com

Terry S. Johnson

Summary: Board of Trustees Meeting of 10/15/20
The Jones Library Board of Trustees monthly meeting was held on Thursday, October 15, with all six Trustees attending. 

Board President Austin Sarat clarified an August 13 Motion concerning the Trustees’ possible commitment to provide $6 million toward the Town’s $22 million share of the proposed  $35.8 million demolition/expansion project, not including debt service, cost overruns, or additions for sustainability measures. 

After a prickly discussion, the Board then approved two new motions regarding the demolition/expansion project, one unanimous and the other 5 to 1 with Treasurer Bob Pam dissenting (see below).

In other key agenda items, Director Sharon Sharry received a glowing yearly evaluation summary. No evaluation forms other than a summary are open to the public. This evaluation will be addressed in a subsequent article. 

Discussion of budget issues was very short. Treasurer Bob Pam voiced concerns that the Director had not scheduled a budget meeting for over two months, declaring that he only knows that money is going “in and out and nothing has bounced.” “I would like to say we have a meeting scheduled but we don’t,” he added. The library has been struggling with its budget and Sharry has stated that if all three libraries in Town were open, she would not have sufficient funds to staff them adequately. 

Lastly, Sharry gave a brief update on Library services. So far, both tents used for materials pick-up during the spring and summer have been lost to weather events. The side porch at the Jones is being employed for delivery. A third, sturdier tent is supposed to be installed later this week so that Wi-fi availability and library laptop services can finally commence. Sharry also mentioned that she would develop a plan for “winterizing” library services. 

The meeting was recorded and should be available soon through the Library’s Agenda Center (not through Amherst Media).

August 13 Motion Clarification
Sarat updated the Trustees as to the status of the August 13 motion to pledge $6 million towards the proposed demolition/expansion project if the Town Council approves it, even if the Library’s endowment has to be tapped.

The motion says that if the Town approves the project, the Library will contribute $6 million, to be paid at the time of receipt of the last payment from the  grant anticipated from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. 

Sarat added that this motion is now in the hands of the Town Manager, who may need to work with Town Counsel to move it forward.  Sarat’s initial August statement said that he would appoint “negotiators” from the Library. Perhaps Sarat is acting as a lone negotiator. We do not know.

Two New Motions Concerning the Proposed Demolition/Expansion Project
As an introduction to the new motions, Sarat gave remarks in what he called “a Fidel Castro 5- 1/2 hour address” concerning the history of the proposed project. He emphasized the long and careful planning by several committees and the choice of the best architectural firm in the state, Feingold Alexander Architects (FAA). 

The speech appeared as a rebuttal to counter claims from residents who have questioned the viability of the project, including the lack of substantive public input going back as far as the first schematic design process four years ago, in 2016–2017. Readers can listen to the first 15 minutes of the meeting to hear this summary once it is posted

Sarat began by stating that the first proposal for a 100,000 sq. ft. library (actually, it was 110,000) was a “wish list as happens with many projects.” He then shared how hard the Library has worked to receive patron and staff input and how the proposed project rectifies many  existing functional and safety problems. 

Sarat went on to emphasize that “it is incorrect to say that the Jones was not initially interested in sustainability” and implied that the Trustees did not have to be concerned about energy issues four years ago because the Town was not interested in such matters. 

Let’s recall that the Trustees did not apply for a Green Energy Initiative award in the initial grant and cannot do so now. That left up to $450,000 on the table. 

At no time during these remarks did Sarat refer to the astonishing fact that the Trustees agreed to Sharon Sharry’s assertion that the 1993 addition of 17,800 sq. ft. had to be demolished in its entirety without any written report or detailed analysis evaluating that assertion. The June 2020 cost estimate from Fennessy Consulting Services shows that replacing the square footage that is scheduled for demolition will cost $7,440,000 ($418 per sq. foot of new construction x 17,800 sq. ft.). The expansion, an additional 17,000 sq. ft., will cost  about the same (pp. 56-59).

a) Motion to Accept the Schematic Designs
Trustee Tamson Ely, chair of the Building and Facilities Subcommittee, tried to present this motion at the last board meeting but was stalled by Sarat, who alleged that more information was needed from FAA about the extra sustainability costs of $656,000. However, no new financial information was mentioned and the following motion was approved 6-0: 

MOTION: The Jones Library Board of Trustees vote to approve the most recent schematic designs dated 9/8/20 including the additional sustainability features

b) Motion to Request that the Town Council Approve the Project by April 30, 2021

In a stunning detour from Sarat’s usual procedures of having motions approved by a subcommittee, Ely introduced a motion which her subcommittee has never discussed. In fact, several Trustees stated that they had never seen this motion before; this includes Alex LeFebvre, who is the second member of Ely’s subcommittee. So how did this motion develop? We do not know.

After a lengthy and somewhat contentious discussion, this second motion was approved 5-1 with Treasurer Pam dissenting.

MOTION: The Board of Trustees requests that the Town Council vote to approve the library expansion/renovation by the end of April, 2021.

At the beginning of the discussion, Pam stated that “putting a time limit is not good” and that “this [would be] a bad decision by the Board,” given that the Town Council might not be ready at that time. He was allowed to delay the vote until the end of the meeting so that he could craft different wording, but his subsequent substitute wording was defeated, as other Trustees felt it was too wordy, contained information which is already known by the Council, or will eventually be shared with the Council and was not strong enough in its language usage.

Most Trustees felt that the original wording was a request and not a demand, and that it was not inappropriate. They believe that it is time that the Trustees know where the Town stands so that they can make decisions about how to address the Library’s significant building needs.

The Town has not yet discussed priorities for the four proposed capital projects as well as for roads, sidewalks, and bridges, all of which will be impacted by the decision about the Library plan. 

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