No matter how hard one side or the other tries to close the book on the library-funding controversy, another chapter seems to write itself.

The genesis in this case was a proposal by Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl to put a referendum question about library branches on the ballot for the April election.

Although the Mental Health Board receives a lump sum that the members – appointed by the Mayor and approved by the City Council – allocate among various agencies, the Library Board – whose members are also appointed by the Mayor and approved by the City Council – is handed a budget with allocations suggested by the City Manager and approved by the Council. In the case of the Library Board, the City Manager proposes to close the two branch libraries and use the money – about $150,000 – that would have been spent to keep them open to fund the purchase of additional library materials.

Many aldermen appeared to be taken by surprise by the Mayor’s referendum proposal, but most managed to respond on library services, the law or the branches.

Most disagreed with the proposal, some because they said a referendum would allow them to “abdicate” their role of leadership, and one because she said Evanston would become like California.

“I am deeply troubled by the divisions the [library] branches have caused in this community,” Mayor Tisdahl said. “I would like to throw out a referendum on the April ballot, asking the community whether they would like to have branch libraries.”

“When did a political campaign ever heal a division?” asked Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward.

“The purpose of a referendum is to give elected officials an out,” said Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward. She added she thought a referendum question would be unfair “because wealthy people vote more than poor people; Caucasians vote more than minorities. … How many people aren’t going to be heard?”

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said, “We were elected to make decisions. I think we can have a more comprehensive discussion about libraries here.”

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, said he was still unclear about the legality of the library question – whether the Library Board’s decision in August to invoke the State Local Library Act and create an autonomous library board that would set its own budget supersedes Council’s authority to allocate funds to library services.

“Suppose we had a referendum and the law supports [the Library Board]. Maybe some of you know, but I’m not clear about the state of the law. If the Board can establish a [library] district, where do we go? We [need] an analysis from the law department, backed up with cases.”

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said staff would redistribute the memoranda on that subject.

“We reviewed them,” said Ald. Jean-Baptiste, “and it’s still not clear. … What we read didn’t give us comfort.”

Ald. Burrus said, “I’m paying so people can walk to East Side branches. If they want to pay for their Dark Ages ‘camps,’ let them have a special service district.”

Ald. Rainey asked for clarification about funding for the branches in the budget. Mr. Bobkiewicz said there is funding for the branches, pro-rated on last year’s allocations, which funded the branches for six months, “so we are four months short.”

Ald. Rainey said, “So what the Mayor is saying [is] put a referendum question. … We would have to make arrangements to [fund] the branches should the referendum pass. That’s nonsense, and, Mayor, I just so resent your bringing this up again.”

Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, said, “I was hoping to avoid the conversation at this level – ‘yours’ and ‘ours.’ The numbers are there, and many of them contradict what Alderman Burrus is saying. It seems that we have a Library Board that can be trusted. We should just say, ‘Here’s your money – do your best with it.’”

Ald. Fiske said there is “no question” that the North Branch Library acts as an economic engine for the area. “If the South Branch moved to Main Street or to Dempster/Dodge, it would be a message of confidence.”

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said, “As I listen to the discussion, I’m struck by how divisive this is. … What I’d like to do is look at new and creative ways of implementing library services. … I would like to have the branches funded. We have an incredible amount of community support. We think of ourselves as a progressive community, but I’m not sure we’ve been progressive with our libraries.”

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...