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Monday, August 20, 2018

Three library Friends groups face eviction

Library Friends groups make most of their money through book sales, like this one at George Mason Regional Library in Annandale.
Three library Friends groups are being evicted from Fairfax County libraries because they refused to sign a Memorandum of Understanding that calls for them to hand over all records of their financial transactions to the Fairfax County Public Library (FCPL).

This action comes after months of rancor between the library Friends groups on one side and FCPL Director Jessica Hudson and the Library Board of Trustees on the other.

The Friends groups associated with the Centreville, Chantilly, and John Marshall libraries informed FCPL that they are not signing the MOU and, as a result, have been told they must vacate their space in the library.

The other Friends groups have signed or intend to sign the MOU, but many are signing under duress because they feel they have no choice.

Toxic climate

The whole situation has led to what some Friends members feel is a toxic climate and that their contributions are disrespected. Collectively, Friends annually donate hundreds of thousands of dollars and many thousands of volunteer hours to libraries. They fund children’s reading programs, library furniture, landscaping, educational programs, and much more.

The debate over the MOU has been painful and frustrating,” says Dennis Hays of Library Advocates. “All we have ever asked is that they treat us as equal partners in the MOU (which we are) and sit down and discuss areas of concern. For over a year they have refused, instead holding ‘meetings’ where we are told what they have already decided.”

While there are several provisions in the MOU that Friends groups opposed, the requirement that they turn over their financial records was the biggest sticking point. A lawyer hired by several Friends groups told them the county has no right to demand that, as the Friends groups are independent 501(c)(3) organizations and already submit financial information to the IRS. She advised them not to sign the MOU.

“Many of us feel [the MOU] violates our consciences, goes against the advice of our legal counsel, and tramples our rights as legally recognized, independent nonprofit organizations,” states a guest commentary in the Falls Church News-Press by Charles Keener, a board member of the Friends of the Tysons-Pimmit Regional Library.

Noting that Hudson and Library Board Chair Miriam Smolen refused to amend the MOU that had been approved by the board in January, Keener says: “Library Friends are being bullied and threatened with eviction if we do not sign a contract we are not comfortable with. Library Friends have been told we must sign away our rights or be thrown out.”

“This entire process has been incredibly toxic, corrosive, and divisive,” Keener says. “Trust has been eroded, respect lost, and any sense of community or partnership shattered.”

Book sale canceled

The board of the Friends of George Mason Regional Library had been split over whether to sign the MOU or not, but now they plan to sign it after they’d been reassured by language in an FCPL information sheet aimed at clarifying the MOU, says the group’s president, Cathy Schagh.

According to that document, Friends won’t be subject to annual audits but would only be audited if there’s a particular concern, says Schagh. “We feel like we can live with it,” she says, although the issue “wasn’t handled as cordially as it could have been.”

Among the groups that didn’t sign, the Friends of Chantilly Regional Library canceled a book sale that had been scheduled for October. The Friends of Centreville Regional Library plan to hold a final fall book sale, leave the library premises by Oct. 31, and dissolve on Dec. 31.

The president of one of the groups that didn’t sign wrote an email to Hudson and the Library Board stating: “We continue to take exception to the county’s authoritarian approach overall, especially with the requirement to produce underlying financial records on demand, which is beyond what the IRS and Commonwealth of Virginia require of 501(c)(3) tax-exempt, nonprofit charitable organizations.”

“We believe that the county’s demand is an overreach of authority and, according to our legal counsel, actually illegal,” the president wrote.

Hudson informed the groups that didn’t sign that they will no longer have space in the library for storage or other uses but can book meeting room space like any other community group. “You may not continue to use the name of the library (branch or system) in connection with any charitable fundraising purposes,” Hudson wrote.

Hudson also told the groups that “any assets of the Friends remain the assets of the Friends.” In response, an attorney advising one of the Friends groups said: “This paragraph is entirely unnecessary and quite arrogant. Of course, the Friends group retains its assets. And what the Friends group decides to do with its assets is its own business.”

Conflicts among Friends

It appears that FCPL plans to replace departing Friends groups with other volunteers. After the Friends of Lorton Library declined to sign the MOU and agreed to disband, Hudson created a new Friends group for that library that did sign, Keener says. “As soon as you’re out the door, they’re willing to get someone new. They see us as expendable,” he says.

According to Hays, there are provisions in FCPL’s information sheet clarifying the MOU that go beyond what is in the MOU, such as a statement giving the library board the right to have “some oversight” over Friends’ resources. Hays says the library system has no right to interfere in the internal decisions of an independent 501(c)3 organization.

According to Keener, some groups signed the MOU “as a poison pill” just to avoid eviction. And among the Friends that did sign, the issue led to internal conflicts.

The president of the Friends of Kingstowne Library quit after his board agreed to sign the MOU. Some members of the Friends of Tysons-Pimmit Regional Library are leaving.

The Friends of Reston Regional Library were evenly split on signing and only signed after an additional board member was added who was willing to sign the MOU, Keener says.

Some Friends groups have considered carrying on with their work as independent nonprofit organizations, says Keener, but if they can’t be in the building physically, how would potential book donors find them? “If you’re completely divorced and have no relationship with the library, it would be very difficult. And why would you want to raise money for the county or library after they’ve evicted you?”

Keener had repeatedly reached out to members of the Board of Supervisors to urge them to negotiate with FCPL and told them Friends would sign the MOU if the two sentences requiring them to turn over their financial records were removed.

“They couldn’t care less,” he says. “The deal is set and they’re not interested in compromises or flexibility.”

“They are literally throwing into the street people who’ve served for decades over two sentences, because they wouldn’t bow down and bend the knee,” Keener says. “That is scary.”

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

That sounds like this county--not listening to constituents and do whatever some county person who thinks she/he knows what's best for libraries wants to do. Friends groups are not appreciated for the money they raise and all the work they do for libraries. Unfortunately, you need to listen to your lawyer and give your time, money, and dedication to a cause that will appreciate it. This county is not it. Supervisors except for three do not listen to constituents. I'm a democrat but it's time to change this cabal from office next year and not vote just because they are a Democrat or Republican but for somebody who will listen and take seriously constituents.

Unknown said...

So how do we voice our dissatisfaction? Presumably we eventually get to vote for someone in the Fairfax County BOS that has oversight, so we could write to that person?

Larry said...

County bureaucrats pulled the same crap with Booster clubs that support student activities like band, sports, etc. Mandated all kinds of reporting and rules to 'oversee' outside groups that help students. Pure power grab by folks with too much time on their hands.

Anonymous said...

Why does the county need to know their finances?
Why is the county playing hardball with volunteers?
This does not make sense.

Arielle in NoVA said...

So that's why FoRRL (the Reston group) stuck around. I did NOT think they were going to.

dominik_12 said...

I'm appalled! Our Library system's operation is WAY behind the times and "old school". That one of the richest counties in the nation has such pitiful libraries is quite telling. I'd suggest you (the Library) take a step back and do a "Best Practices" look at how other states/counties are operated/funded is TRULY in order! Our daughter lives in CO Springs, CO. They have SEVEN libraries that are MASSIVE! Thousands of square feet at TWO STORIES! They actually have corporate sponsors. We (FFX County) have much to do to provide needed resources. Kicking volunteer groups OUT of the Library over piddly issues proves we need a revamp of our libraries' administrative structure!

Anonymous said...

I totally agree! The two party system needs to be eliminated and voters need to do their research and vote for the best candidate! Unfortunately, that is a skill that has been underappreciated for so long there are very few voters today who even know how to do it! Sad...

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