Woodstock PL Gets Out the "No" Vote

In the days leading up to the November 6 midterm elections, libraries and their boards and supporters nationwide were working on getting out their yes votes—but not the Woodstock Public Library (WPL), NY.WPL’s allies focused on getting residents to vote no on a ballot question that would have eliminated its library district.

Woodstock Public Library
Photo credit: Dorothea Marcus

In the days leading up to the November 6 midterm elections, libraries and their boards and supporters nationwide were working on getting out their yes votes—but not the Woodstock Public Library (WPL), NY. WPL’s allies focused on getting residents to vote no on a ballot question that would have eliminated its library district. They succeeded, with just under 65 percent voting to keep the library’s governance intact, and the library budget passed by 75 percent as well.

"It was a huge affirmation for the library board,” WPL board president Dorothea Marcus told LJ. “It was really an unprecedented kind of challenge, a very bizarre maneuver.... But [the issue] was really about the building, not about governance.”

An ad hoc community group, Change the Governance of the Woodstock Library, formed in April in the wake of contentious discussions about the library building’s future. At issue was whether to keep the existing 7,841 square foot building, or tear it down and build a new one; the conflict stretches back 11 years.

The community group, claiming that library governance did not adequately represent local voters and taxpayers, proposed to dissolve the library’s tax district, incorporate WPL as a municipal public library under the town board, and appoint a new board of trustees. After collecting the needed number of signatures on a petition early in the summer, the group placed a referendum on the November ballot that asked, “Shall the Woodstock Public Library District be dissolved and terminated?”

GETTING TO “NO”

The library and board mobilized immediately for a two-part process. First, they needed to educate residents on the wording of the question, explaining that a yes vote would defeat the library’s cause—“Libraries are used to getting out a yes vote for their budget, here we were asking them to vote no,” explained WPL director Jessica Kerr—and then engage voters.

Because the library is not allowed to spend money advocating in a political campaign, a local ballot initiative group formed to get the word out. Individuals donated money for newspaper ads, yard signs, buttons, and other campaign materials, and group members wrote letters to local papers. A door-to-door effort had to be abandoned, because of time conflicts for volunteers who were already canvassing for U.S. Congress, Sheriff, and other campaigns. Instead, the advocates organized a phone bank to mobilize voters and answer questions.

Even with advice from legal counsel, the New York Library Association, and the Mid-Hudson Library System, sorting through the possible ramifications of the proposed dissolution was not always straightforward. Kerr suspected that library staff would likely lose their jobs in the process of restructuring, although the opposition maintained that was not necessarily the case. The library provided as much information as possible on its website, outlining various forms of governance and what was at stake if the special district was abolished.

“No special library district in New York State has ever been abolished, because the type of governance and funding we have is like the gold standard,” Marcus told LJ. “No one, including our attorney and several other experts in the field, could say exactly what would happen if the referendum had passed."

The advocacy group was able to use that uncertainty in its favor, even using the referendum’s own wording in its message. “Dissolved and terminated is very scary language to people,” said Marcus. The group also noted that the move was anti-democratic, which resonated strongly in the Woodstock community. Currently residents vote every year on the library budget and board of trustees, noted Marcus. But if the library district was terminated and the town took over, they would lose their voice in those matters. "Why would you vote to lose the right to vote in the future?” explained Marcus. “If you vote yes, you're terminating your own right to vote directly on this in the future, and you're also terminating other people’s right to vote on it.”

Advocates also made it a point to separate the issue at stake—the library’s governance—from decisions on future renovation plans, which were emotional for many who had grown up with the current building.

THE DUST SETTLES

Both Kerr and Marcus agreed that the referendum was stressful for the entire library, from staff to the board to the Friends—exacerbated by the fact that Kerr was out for emergency spinal surgery during most of the campaign. The first post-election board meeting was given over to the public as a “be heard” session for over two hours, said Marcus. “People from both sides came. The board listened, and got to speak, and it was a very healing experience."

Now, said Kerr, it’s time to focus on library services and activities, and working with the board to move forward on building plans—whatever those might be. The organizational experience, as well, has been invaluable for the board and library leadership.

"It really rocked the town,” said Marcus. “But there were some silver linings, and one of them is that we now have more light and public attention shining on the library, which is a great opportunity for us. Also the fact that there were a huge number of volunteers, not just Friends of the library but citizens of Woodstock who are library allies, who were mobilized in the referendum fight. So that means that going forward with whatever we do with building…we now have a core of people who we know we can call on to support us.”

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