This Isn't a Free Library

Financial mayhem undermines a library

— Late last summer, the New York City-based Library Journal named then-San Diego mayor Dick Murphy the 2004 "Politician of the Year." What attracted his editors' attention, the magazine's editor in chief, John N. Berry III, wrote in the September 15 issue, was "the rare combination of a mayor giving the city library system as high a priority as other crucial city services...and sticking with it even when it became a campaign issue." The article acknowledged Murphy's efforts to expand the San Diego branch library system. But it especially praised his leadership of the campaign for a new main library downtown.

The proposed new library would cost $150 million and would offer the latest in information services with state-of-the-art technology. The state of California has awarded a $20 million grant to help get the project off the ground. That money must be returned if the library is not completed by 2008. A major requirement of the project is that the San Diego Public Library Foundation raise $50 million in private funding. The Centre City Development Corporation will provide the remaining $80 million.

Saying that "we deserve a world-class library," Murphy led the city council's decision on April 19 of this year to spend $6.5 million on completing architectural designs and clearing the site for the new library. But only six days later, Murphy announced his resignation. Library proponents were left reeling. In an April 27 Union-Tribune story, Martin Stolz quoted major donor David Copley as saying, "The sheer confusion and chaos at City Hall...may well scare [other] donors away."

Donors are crucial to the plan, because the city council required the San Diego Public Library Foundation to raise $33 million of the private funds before construction could begin late this summer. The council established a deadline of July 31. In the meantime, according to a July 5 U-T story by Stolz, the San Diego County Taxpayers Association has voiced opposition to the project and the local chamber of commerce is noncommittal after initially supporting it. The chamber has complained of having difficulties obtaining accurate information about the library's construction.

At the end of July, I called Councilman Jim Madaffer, who became the point man for the new library after Murphy's departure, to inquire about its progress. The library is to occupy the blocks bounded by Park Boulevard, J Street, 11th Avenue, and K Street. A police garage has operated on the block's northeast corner for the past 20 years. The city had the garage torn down this spring and built a new one on Federal Avenue. Madaffer tells me that "remediation" already is going on at the old garage site. "When the city council appropriated additional funding for further design of the library, that included initial site remediation, the idea being that, since the police garage is being vacated anyway, the site's got to be remediated anyway."

In the area of funding, "Things are moving on track quietly, as you would expect," said Madaffer. "The philanthropic community operates much like diplomacy. Most of it is done behind the scenes. And the interest in the main library, I would say, is very high. Capital dollars are clearly available. We hope to announce some major gifts in the next few months so we can follow through on our promise to the citizens of San Diego to build a new library."

What about the July 31 deadline? "Based on construction going on over at the library's new site," Madaffer tells me, "we pushed the deadline out a little ways."

"According to what decision of the city council?" The question is community gadfly Mel Shapiro's. I am listening to him in his Normal Heights apartment. "The library proponents seem to do whatever they want," says Shapiro, "without regard to legal requirements."

Shapiro raises another concern. He rejects Madaffer's contention that the police garage was going to be moved "anyway." A July 14 SignOnSanDiego story supports this: "The old Central Division garage at 11th and K streets," the article says, "has to be torn down to make way for the new downtown library." And an April 13 San Diego city manager's report on new funding for the library cites "demolition of the existing police garage" as one of the costs the funding would pay for.

The cost of the new police garage is not in the library's budget. But, according to Shapiro, that cost amounts to adding another expense to the already $150 million library price tag. On July 17, the Union-Tribune reported that the newly completed garage cost the city $10.7 million. "It seems funny," says Shapiro, that a police garage would be part of a library's cost.

The Centre City Development Corporation, which has pledged to contribute $80 million to build the library if private donations meet expectations, is chaired by Harold Sadler. Sadler is also the chairman of the board of Tucker Sadler Architects, which, in a joint venture with Rob Wellington Quigley Architects, is designing the new library.

Last year, Mel Shapiro filed a conflict-of-interest complaint against Sadler with the San Diego Ethics Commission. The commission pursued the complaint, and Sadler "stipulated" to violations of two sections of the San Diego Municipal Code. He admitted that he voted to approve Centre City Development Corporation budgets in 2003 and 2004 that contained appropriations for the new main library project. He also admitted that he voted for the issuance of bonds to fund building of the library. As part of his stipulation, Sadler promised not to vote on any further items affecting his own company.

According to Shapiro, when the development corporation revoted on these issues, Sadler abstained. But Shapiro raises the question: "Are development corporation members going to vote against the financial interests of their chairman? I've never seen that happen," he adds. "And members abstain like mad over at the corporation anyhow, because they all have conflicts."

Meanwhile, Shapiro says, in an ongoing dispute, the development corporation won't pay $100 million it acknowledges owing the city. He wonders, "Why shouldn't they put that money toward the city budget while we're in tough financial times these days instead of spending it on a big new library?"

Shapiro mentions that Councilwoman Donna Frye voiced related sentiments when she cast the lone vote against spending the $6.5 million for the library. In an April 20 Union-Tribune article, Martin Stolz quoted Frye: " 'I think it is disingenuous to tell people, once again, that it will have no impact on the general fund,' she said. 'This isn't a free library.' " The article continued, "Several council members joined Frye in expressing concern at the prospect of using general fund money to finance the library project, especially in light of the city's tight budget and a $1.4 billion deficit in the pension system."

Councilman Madaffer has a different point of view. "The current fiscal problems we are having are shorter-term issues," he tells me, "and a main library is a 100-year project, an icon for the ages, if you will. You need a cultural icon designed for San Diego to last over the next 100 years."

But Shapiro notes that early in the spring the city council voted to cut back branch library hours to save money. "I think these downtown library people just have an edifice complex," he says.

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