After the success of the Kenai Public Library’s 2011 expansion project, during which the library moved into the building it currently occupies, the seven members of the city’s library commission felt a loss of purpose, said library director Mary Jo Joiner.
“Most of the sitting commissioners felt like once we had built the building, that’s what they had been working for,” Joiner said.
Since June 2013, the library commission has lost four of those seven members, leaving it unable to reach a quorum — the number of members required to be present at a meeting in order to vote on decisions. According to Joiner, the departing commission members said there was “a lack of real challenges,” and that “the work of the commission has been diminished, as evidenced by the successful completion of the recent library expansion project.”
Joiner said that when the commission was unable to find replacements for the departing members, it began meeting quarterly, rather than monthly. The lack of issues to discuss was just as detrimental as a lack of members.
“What it’s down to is reviewing policies,” Joiner said. “Not necessarily because we need to, but because it’s something we can do. At this point, we’ve reviewed all the policies we have. We usually have a list of goals and objectives for the year, but they’ve been pretty static in the nine years since I’ve been here.”
The commission last met in August 2014. At a November city council meeting, Kenai mayor Pat Porter raised the idea of ending the library commission.
On December 10, 2014, recently retired Kenai resident Bob McIntosh applied for a seat on the library commission.
“I kind of figured that I wouldn’t get on the library commission, because the library’s so great, they’ve done such a great job that they must have it totally filled and operating functionally,” McIntosh said.
Another surprise followed soon after, when he discovered that the council was considering ending the library commission.
“My first reaction was, ‘wait, that’s people’s input to their government.’ Why would they get rid of that?” McIntosh said.
In a December 30, 2014 memo to the library commission, Joiner asked whether its members “would support the Mayor’s suggestion to ‘sunset’ the library commission and perhaps devote (their) time and effort to help the library through joining the Board of the Friends of the Library.” In subsequent emails to city management, each of the three commissioners supported the idea.
The Friends of the Kenai library is a 501-C3 nonprofit organization, independent of the city council and the library commission, dedicated to fundraising for the Kenai library.
According to a December 30 memo, Joiner said that the Friends were experiencing “the same attrition” as the commission in the aftermath of the successful expansion project. She said it would be beneficial to both organizations if they merged.
One of the duties of the library commission named in the Kenai city code is to “serve as the liaison between the public and the City Council in regards to library service.”
“They are two different organizations,” McIntosh said of the library commission and the Friends of the Library. “They perform two different functions. The advisory function that’s set up under law for the commission will cease to exist.”
McIntosh said he has not yet been interviewed for the position. Prior to McIntosh, the most recent applicant to the commission was Christine Hutchinson, who submitted an application in 2014 and was appointed by mayor Porter. The council voted not to confirm her appointment during their meeting on October 15, 2014. In an open letter to the city council, McIntosh pointed out that the appointment of either himself or Hutchinson would have made the commission functional by giving it its required quorum.
Porter said that Mr. McIntosh’s appointment would not solve the commission’s problems.
“The reason Mr. McIntosh’s name has not come forward is because we need to solve this issue first,” said Porter. “Even if you had another commissioner on there, you would need to guarantee that everyone showed up, or you still wouldn’t have a quorum. We’ve had lack of interest from anyone to participate. I think that comes from lack of agenda items.”
McIntosh said he had plans for renewing the membership of the commission.
“There’s ways that we can get out there,” McIntosh said. “People we can contact. A lot of homeschoolers in the area. We could say, ‘look, here’s a library. What can we do for your home school organization? If you want to do that, why don’t you get on the commission here?’”
In addition to home school groups, McIntosh said that he would reach out to residents of Nikiski who use the Kenai library.
“I think they’ve looked at this and said ‘let’s shut it down because we can’t fix it.’ I think we can fix it,” McIntosh said.
Porter intends to introduce an ordinance to retire the library commission at the city council’s next meeting on February 4. She said that McIntosh’s suggestions were not a consideration in deciding whether or not to end the commission.
“He hasn’t come up with any agenda items that I know of,” Porter said. “He would like to see himself appointed. At this point, our council needs to make a decision on whether or not we want to continue the library commission as it is today.”
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org