Leelanau library board millage seeks change

Oct. 29—TRAVERSE CITY — A measure on the ballot in Leelanau Township could eventually set the stage for a larger, improved library facility.

But first, the Leelanau Township Library will have to secure its autonomy from the township government. It's been operating under the township's authority for more than five decades, based on a long-since overturned state policy.

Proponents for change are asking voters for a 6-year, 0.5-mill property tax to establish its own, independent board.

That board will be tasked with a wide range of responsibilities once they get set up, projected to occur by April pending voter approval. But first among their priorities will likely be putting together a plan for a new library altogether.

The current library building was built in 1968, and occupies 2,720 square feet. Like its governance, the library facility itself isn't fully independent, sharing space with township offices. Current Library Director Julie Preneta described the current amenities as cramped and aging — "built at a different time," before the need for widespread access to computers.

"In order for the library to keep up with the times we need a board, and then down the road we can work on a facilities upgrade," she said.

If approved, the tax millage, appearing on the Nov. 8 ballot, will bring in $238,000 in its first year and would cost the owner of a home with a taxable value of $150,000 about $75 per year.

Preneta said the need for more space became even more apparent following the COVID-19 pandemic, when remote working became more prevalent. When people couldn't work from home, that often brought them to the library to make use of its Wi-Fi capabilities and other resources. In the summer months, especially, that sometimes meant year-round residents couldn't get in to use the computers when they needed, and some people would work at tables outside to pick up the library's Wi-Fi.

Other times, people would use the tables at the library for business meetings. There are currently no private meeting rooms at the library, but proponents say that would likely be a major feature incorporated into the plan for a new library building.

There have been efforts to establish an independent library board for roughly two decades, Preneta said. In 1976, the state repealed a 1955 public act which placed libraries under the purview of townships, but some libraries, including Leelanau, were grandfathered in. Leelanau Township Library remains one of three in the state which operates under the old model.

In the past, township boards have had other priorities or were unreceptive to the idea of a separate library board. But, when the Friends of the Library began discussing ways to improve the library about a year ago, they determined now was the right time to put the issue up to the voters, said Deborah Stannard. Stannard is co-chair of YES! Leelanau Library, an offshoot of the Friends of the Library which has led petitioning and advocacy efforts on the issue this year.

Stannard also was the previous library director.

"I feel that we have a lot of support," Stannard said. "The library has been a positive place and a positive presence in the community."

Even after the group succeeded in obtaining the minimum 50 signatures needed to place the issue on the ballot, the issue was met with at least one more delay. Proponents were aiming for a spot on the Aug. 2 ballot, and made the April deadline to do so. But the township was in a transition period and without a supervisor, so the question was postponed until the midterm election.

Stannard said she doesn't think the change will have an adverse impact on the results, and that her group is "happy to have" the measure on next month's ballot.

If the measure passes, the first group of library board members will be appointed, and will serve a four-year term. After that, they will be elected. The members will be nonpartisan, and Stannard said the ideal appointees would be people who are active in the community, interested, and who may have expertise in relevant subject matters.

In separate interviews, both Stannard and Preneta highlighted that expertise as a major advantage of having a separate board.

While Township Board members have a litany of responsibilities on all major operations of the township government, the library board members could be specialists, well-versed in the particular issues facing a library.

The board would be the "fiscal and legal face of the library," and would handle the budget. They also would be in charge of making tough decisions like evaluating any challenges that might come from the public about the titles and material the library offers, Preneta said.

"[Township officials] do great jobs governing the township, but they're not trained in library ethics and library law," she said. "So, a library board would have some training and be able to handle those challenges much better."

Recently, there have been several efforts statewide and nationally to pull controversial books off the shelves of public libraries.

Preneta said the Leelanau public library has not fielded any such challenges. She said parents should be involved in what books their children are reading, and should be allowed to filter the media they consume. But she said adults should be able to make decisions for themselves.

"Libraries are here for everyone," she said. "It's our job to put books on the shelf, not take them off."

Report for America corps member and data journalist William T. Perkins' reporting is made possible by a partnership between the Record-Eagle and Report for America, a journalism service project founded by the nonprofit Ground Truth Project. Generous community support helps fund a local share of the Record-Eagle/RFA partnership. To support RFA reporters in Traverse City, go to www.record-eagle.com/rfa.