BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Shhh, … quiet! That’s what patrons are told when they get too noisy in the library. But yesterday at a Hawaii State Capitol Senate Education hearing about libraries and fundraising legalities of their “Friends” affiliates – emotions ran high – and the local librarians and their volunteers were anything but quiet about their views on proposed legislation.
Senate Education Committee members were also frustrated with the head state librarian, because of his lack of leadership, which led to dissention. They also were irked about an email campaign the “Big” Friends of the Library statewide organization launched, which the Senators said wrongly misled librarians and their volunteers with the intent of creating opposition to the bills.
The library drama started more than a year ago when non-profit groups that raise money for their community library were told by the state librarian, Richard Burns, they must become part of the single statewide “Big” Friends of the Library organization or they would not be allowed to fundraise any longer on state property.
Among those banned were the well-organized Friends of the Aina Haina Public Library who have been operating successfully for 50 years.
The Maui Friends organization also was impacted, as is any other non-profit that is not part of the Big Friends.
Legislators are now involved in the dispute, because after Burns sought an attorney general’s opinion in 2010, and Senators asked for confirmation of that opinion just this month, they learned it will take a change in the state law to allow independent groups to continue to fundraise for their community library, even though in many cases they’ve already been fundraising for decades. Right now, “Big Friends” as they’ve been nicknamed by lawmakers, are the ones allowed to fundraise for the state libraries.
Senate Education Chair Jill Tokuda said: “We want to look for the best way to allow communities to embrace and support their public libraries now and going forward into the future. And we all agree the libraries need our help. If they were overly well funded, had immaculate facilities and were open seven days a week, we probably would not be having this discussion. But I think we all recognize that without public/private support, Big Friends, Little Friends, Friends we don’t even know yet going into the future, that is what we need to do, make that possible, so we can support our community library branches.”
Bills moving forward in the House and Senate would fix the problem of non-profit organizations being banned from fundraising for their community library on state library property as they had always done, but several librarians and their volunteers opposed the measure yesterday. They believed, after receiving fliers from the “Big” Friends organizers, that they would be prevented from fundraising and keeping the money they raised for their own libraries.
Senators tried to clear up the confusion yesterday that the legislation does just the opposite.
Though it may seem uncontroversial to allow fundraising by any non-profit that wishes to help their library and gets permission to do so from the librarian, it surprisingly turned extremely divisive.
Head Librarian Burns said having too many organizations fundraising for the library can be “disruptive.” He said when he was a full time librarian in Kapolei, that was the case, and he pointed to a Big Island group claiming to be fundraising for a library on the island (he could not remember which library), but in fact the group has never turned money over to the library, according to Burns.
Sen. Michelle Kidani, D-Miliani, told Burns since he is ultimately in charge of the libraries and state properties they sit on, he should take control of situations like the problem on the Big Island, but he said he has not.
“To me as a state librarian, you are in control of the properties. So how did this happen?” Kidani asked.
Burns used these as examples of why he’s been trying to “eliminate” and “consolidate” organizations under the Big Friends and “contacting affiliates and friends groups to reach resolutions.”
Kidani was visibly upset with Burns, also challenging him on other fronts.
“All of us were inundated with emails, and what was most disturbing were emails that were was misleading and incorrect. This whole thing got blown out of proportion and maybe that was because there was no leadership,” Kidani told Burns. She said Burns should have corrected the information being circulated by the Big Friends, and his ignoring it was “a total cop out.”
“Right after the last hearing, two of your friends, from the Big Friends, followed me to my office, came in, and started to say things that I thought were inappropriate in front of my staff and visitors I had in my office. I did not appreciate that. So I cannot understand how you have no authorization over them, because if you do not know what is going on, then who the heck does?” Kidani asked.
“Because if you allow this kind of misleading information to continue, all you are doing is creating the kind of situation that we have today. Whether it is the Friends of Aina Haina or Maui, I believe they are very sincere in wanting to support their public libraries. And to have to be bullied and intimidated and told you can no longer have fundraisers on this property because you won’t join our group – that is inappropriate,” Kidani said.
Another point of contention between librarians, Friends and the legislature, is how money is being tracked, and whether funds should be in private accounts or turned over to a state library special fund, and then issued to the respective community libraries when a purchase is made.
Tokuda said by law, money raised is supposed to be turned over to the state library special fund and then allocated back to the libraries so there is transparent accounting.
But Kailua’s library volunteers said there has been no problem with their books or fundraising, and they did not want to turn over their money to the state, because they fear the cash will be raided for other purposes, as the legislature is notoriously known to do.
“Can you say ‘Hurricane Relief Special Fund?’” one Kailua volunteer asked referring to the legislature’s annual raid of millions of dollars from the fund for purposes other than state weather related emergencies.
Tokuda admitted there is always the possibility, but said it is remote: “No offense, but I don’t think the $50,000 or $100,000 that would be in the account is enough to warrant raiding.”
Sharon Nagasako, who testified in support of the bill on behalf of the Friends of Aina Haina Public Library, explained why the legislation is necessary. In 2010, she said, the State Librarian and Big Friends created an Memorandum of Understanding, which based on current law, gives the Big Friends and its affiliates ‘exclusive rights’ to sell books on State property. Therefore, her organization is not allowed to presently hold book sales at the Aina Haina Public Library unless it becomes affiliate of the Big Friends.
Nagasako explained the current law is HRS 312 -3.8, which reads in part “(a) Notwithstanding any law to the contrary, the Hawaii state public library system, through the state librarian, shall be authorized to issue licenses, revocable permits, concessions, or rights of entry to the Hawaii state library foundation and the friends of the library of Hawaii for the use of public library system facilities and grounds for such periods of use as deemed appropriate by the state librarian.
However, she said the February 17, 2012, Senate Education Committee Report No. 2325 said the Committee believes that ‘the original intent of the existing law was not to create exclusive-use privileges but rather to encourage greater private-public partnerships to benefit the Hawaii State Library System.”
During the Senate Education Committee Hearing on Wednesday, February 15th, Senator Suzanne Chun-Oakland said she and Sen. David Ige were present when HRS 312-3.8 was written 2001, and both agreed that it was never the intent to give any one group exclusive rights to use public library system facilities and grounds, rather, the legislature wanted to encourage partnerships between the Hawaii libraries and the public and private sectors, Nagasako pointed out, adding “Unfortunately, even if the original intent was never to give any organization the ‘exclusive rights’ to hold book sales on State property, the law is currently being interpreted as such, and thus, we must follow this law.”
She said throughout the past 1-1/2 years her group has looked into other options so they can hold their book sales at the Aina Haina Library without becoming a Big Friends affiliate, but they were told by several attorneys that the only way they could sell books on State property legally would be by changing the current law.
“We are all just volunteers, mostly retired senior citizens, who enjoy cleaning books and holding book sales to benefit the library, with absolutely no desire to get involved with changing laws. Even the State Librarian turned down our request for an Memorandum of Understanding, a waiver, and a grandfather clause, saying that he was just following the law. So, we had no choice but to pursue a resolution through amending the present law,” she said. The group then went to their area Senator, Sam Slom, for help.
This saga has been below the media radar, but as Tokuda yesterday, like an onion, the more layers peeled away, the more layers are uncovered.
Senators Jill Tokuda, Sam Slom, Suzie Chun Oakland, and Michelle Kidani met with the librarians and volunteers for about three hours yesterday. Senators Clarence Nishihara and Brian Taniguchi did not attend the hearing.
Senators ultimately passing a bill to allow both the Big Friends and independent friends groups to continue to operate their fundraising efforts on the property of their community library with proceeds going directly to their respective community libraries.
Burns conceded: “Whatever comes out of the legislation this session, we will find a way to work with, so there is some way we can adapt.”
A similar bill Senate Bill – SB 2994 SD2 HD1 – passed yesterday in a House Committee. The bill that passed the Senate Education Committee was HB 1054 HD1 SD1. The final bill would have to pass the full House and Senate and go to the governor for his approval before it becomes law.