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City council gives itself more power over public library

City council has voted to add a second councillor to the Thunder Bay Public Library’s board, increasing its sway over an organization it’s sparred with repeatedly in recent years.

THUNDER BAY – City council has voted to expand its oversight of the Thunder Bay Public Library, adding a second councillor to the library’s board of directors.

The decision gives council added sway over an institution with which it’s sparred repeatedly in recent years – and came as councillors also rejected other governance changes the library board had requested in a Monday evening meeting.

The library had asked council to okay the elimination of dedicated seats on its board for the public and Catholic school boards, a move library leaders said would modernize its governance structure.

The school board reps would have been replaced with citizen members, a move the library said would open the door to more diverse board representation.

Library CEO Richard Togman had emphasized the change was agreed to by the school board representatives themselves in a unanimous vote of the library’s board last year.

Councillors rejected the library’s request Monday, voting instead to preserve the school board reps, while Coun. Trevor Giertuga put forward a surprise amendment to add another city councillor to the board.

“It is $7 million-plus that we fund the libraries for each year,” he said in explaining the need for more oversight. “I would like to put my name forward… And if there’s someone else who perhaps wants to sit on there, then at that point I would suggest we move it to perhaps three members of council.”

“This is significant. You know, to put it in perspective, we have two members on the [Thunder Bay Community] Auditorium board, that we’ve funded for $750,000 over the last couple years, and we have one member of the library board for ten times that amount.”  

Giertuga also alleged the library had not directly consulted with the school boards over the change.

Neither school board has yet responded to a request for comment from TBnewswatch on the issue.

If the decision is ratified by council in two weeks, it would leave the library with 10 board members, including two school board representatives, two council representatives, and six citizen members.

Council would then proceed to appoint a second representative to join Coun. Michael Zussino, currently the sole councillor on the board.

Zussino and Coun. Andrew Foulds, who was council's previous representative on the library board, both argued council should grant the library's request to remove dedicated school board seats, but welcomed the addition of a second councillor.

“I think there’s a real opportunity between city council and the library board, and having one more liaison between the two organizations could be very positive,” said Foulds.

“I think that could go a long way in maybe cementing a better relationship going forward,” agreed Coun. Greg Johnson.

Johnsen also called Giertuga’s motion “a little heavy-handed.”

“The board has come to us asking for permission to tweak their board – they want to bring in other skills, visible minorities,” he said. “I think that’s a good, healthy thing to do for boards and committees.”

Library leaders have framed the school board seats as a remnant of a time long past, saying the system was established before most schools had libraries of their own.

Most Ontario libraries have eliminated dedicated school board seats from their boards since the provincial government removed the requirement from the Public Libraries Act in 2002, said Thunder Bay Public Library CEO Richard Togman.

In an interview following council's vote, both Togman and library board chair Carol Grieve said they welcome additional council representation.

"I think it gives us a new avenue to engage in productive dialogue, and to have council better understand library operations," said Togman.

However, he said he was puzzled by council’s decision to override the library’s recommendation and keep dedicated school board seats.

“The school board reps voted to eliminate their positions,” he said. “So we were a little bit surprised tonight to see city councillors making an issue of this.”

“It’s hopefully something we’ll be able to clarify with council behind the scenes, and possibly get addressed before ratification.”

Grieve agreed she “might like to see it reconsidered,” saying the library may not have explained its rationale to council in enough detail in a brief letter explaining the request.

The debate over the library’s governance comes as its board prepares to make major decisions, like approving a facilities plan that could see some library branches closed, and a new one built, and a staff restructuring.

Ian Kaufman

About the Author: Ian Kaufman

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