UPDATE: Plan To Consolidate North Burien Libraries Put On Hold – For Now

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by Ralph Nichols

The King County Library System Board of Trustees voted 4-0 Tuesday night (Nov. 29) to put on temporary hold administration plans to close and consolidate the White Center and Boulevard Park libraries.

After almost three hours of testimony and discussion, they agreed any action should be delayed at least until the King County Boundary Review Board makes a decision on Burien’s proposed annexation of unincorporated North Highline.

The Boundary Review Board will hold a public hearing on Burien’s application Jan. 9 (read more here). A decision could then be issued within 30 days.

About 50 persons concerned with the proposed consolidation – individuals from Bellevue, Renton and Federal Way joined public officials and private citizens from Burien and North Highline – filled the meeting room at KCLS headquarters in Issaquah.

No one who testified spoke in favor of the proposed closure of the White Center and Boulevard Park libraries.

But Trustee Lucy Krakowiak, who won re-election to the Burien City Council earlier this month, again claimed a conflict of interest between the two positions and recused herself from representing North Burien residents.

Trustee Jessica Bonebright responded to the public’s objections, noting that many North Highline residents – according to a survey conducted earlier this year – said they wanted a new consolidated facility.

“I understand it’s very difficult to lose something like walkability” to a neighborhood library, but others in North Burien “will then gain something by walkability,” Bonebright opined.

KCLS Director Bill Ptacek and Trustees Rob Spitzer and Bonebright stressed that they have a responsibility to provide services equitably to patrons throughout the library district without favoring certain areas with special needs.

“We have a fiduciary responsibility, but it is to the entire system, not just to the city of Burien,” Spitzer said.

“I take it really seriously when you tell voters you’re going to do something,” Spitzer continued. “But flexibility makes sense because the world does change.”

KCLS patrons approved a capital improvements bond issue in 2004 that included building a new and larger White Center Library, and upgrading the Boulevard Park Library.

The bond issue included, however, a “small print” escape clause that gives library system trustees and staff the option to change library capital projects if circumstances change.

Ptacek reminded the board that the annexation issue, which he said surfaced in 2010, represented such a change.

His claim overlooked the fact that in late 2009, after Burien was proceeding with annexation of south North Highline, and Seattle was considering annexing the remaining unincorporated area, the library system attempted in a stealth move to purchase part of Puget Sound Park for a consolidated library.

And Liz Giba, who was recently elected a North Highline Fire District Commissioner, responded that “annexation is not a new issue. It was being discussed in 2003-2004 … at a time when it looked like North Highline would be annexed into Seattle.

“What people are saying is this [library closure and consolidation] is a done deal. I don’t believe this is a done deal.” She then urged the commissioners to “vote their consciences.”

At that point, one member of the audience called out that the trustees have a third option – “to proceed with what the levy called for.”

Councilwoman Rose Clark read into the record a strongly worded letter from the city of Burien, which was authorized at Monday’s city council meeting, that declared “advancing this issue is a step backwards that, from the idea of good government, is a very bad idea.”

Clark told the trustees she was “surprised and disappointed” by their taking up this issue again after deciding in June to wait until the annexation question is resolved.

She added that their failure to hold a public meeting to discuss this issue at a convenient time in Burien is “reprehensible.”

And City Councilman Gerald Robison told them their data supporting consolidation “is just a statistical trick” that doesn’t account for the need for neighborhood libraries in two neighborhoods in need.

King County Councilman Joe McDermott, whose 8th District includes North Highline and Burien, said once again, “I implore you not to vote to consolidate tonight” and to wait for a final answer on annexation before proceeding.

White Center and Boulevard Park are two separate communities and need two separate libraries,” said Burien Planning Commissioner Greg Duff. “You promised it to us in 2004 and I ask you to keep your promise.”

Most of those who testified focused on the demographics of White Center and Boulevard Park – including many low-income households and immigrant families, often without cars – and the negative social impacts closing the libraries would have.

Several called the two libraries “priceless” assets, and spoke of the cost benefits of providing these services for students, many of whom have working parents and depend on the libraries that are near schools for computer access and other homework assistance.

Burien City Councilman Jack Block Jr., responding to trustee statements about providing balanced services throughout the library district, demanded to know “where is the equity?”

Block noted that the library system is building a new parking garage at the Bellevue Library so more patrons can drive there, while planning to close the White Center and Boulevard Park libraries and deprive many local residents without cars of convenient library access.

Several speakers also noted that KCLS trustees are not elected and operate virtually free from public accountability.

Block told the trustees it is time for the King County Council to assume oversight of their board. And Burien, he continued, likely will consider limiting library zoning to the locations of the city’s three libraries.

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