The Philadelphia Free Library leadership faced harsh questioning from City Council in the wake of controversies about racial and religious diversity in the system.
“You need to do more, you need to do better, or we need to get someone who is going to do more and do better,” Councilwoman Cindy Bass said Monday at a hearing on the system’s budget for next year. “I can’t tell that you are committed to diversity … We need to get someone who understands what is important to all colors, to all communities, to all people, all faiths.”
Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown questioned library director Siobhan Reardon about a diversity and inclusion committee that the Free Library’s board authorized in 2017. It still has no members and has never met.
“The mayor has made it exceedingly clear that he wants a government that looks like Philadelphia,” said Brown. “Now it's two years later, and we are hearing that the diversity and inclusion committee is only just forming.”
Bass highlighted an incident where a white senior manager was accused of bias and discrimination. Reardon said an investigation determined the manager hadn’t intended to offend and found no history of discriminatory behavior.
Bass said that she didn’t find Reardon response acceptable, to which Reardon simply replied “OK.”
Bass then suggested a leadership change.
The City Council does not have direct power over the library system or the appointment of its leadership, but it can negotiate with the administration over the city’s budgetary contribution. The vast majority of the library system’s nearly $49 million budget comes from the city, with about $9 million coming from other sources, including the state and private donors.
The budget proposal Mayor Jim Kenney sent Council includes $44 million for the system, which serves more than 6 million annual visitors at 54 branches. That figure includes a $2.5 million boost, plus an additional $1 million to pay for renegotiated labor contracts.
But Bass and the other Council members want a massive expansion of the library system’s budget, putting city lawmakers in the odd position of lambasting the institution’s leaders while pushing for them to receive a massive budget increase.
Advocates from Friends of the Free Library packed the hearing. The group is pushing for a $15 million-plus annual increase to the library's budget, with the goal of ensuring that neighborhood branches are open every day throughout the year. Although the city contribution looks the same as it did in 2008, the current budget really represents a 17 percent cut over 10 years once inflation is accounted for, the group argued. State funding has fallen dramatically as well.
Bass said she would like to see the city spend far more than even the advocacy groups demand.
“Based on the visit to my library in Nicetown, I think the number is probably close to $25 million,” Bass said. “We can’t get to the bottom of Nicetown’s needs alone with $2.5 million. It’s just not going to do what we need to do.”
Reardon tried to demonstrate that the system has been responsive to pressure from advocates for more services, saying that 40 of 53 library branches are now open six days a week. But she said library administrators are still trying to determine if they have the resources to open them all for eight hours on Saturdays, or if some branches will stay open for just four hours on Saturdays
She said that the $2.5 million included in the mayor’s budget would go largely toward adding a mix of 45 part- and full-time positions. That staff expansion would allow all neighborhood libraries to open six days a week, but only during the school year. Staff levels should average seven workers at each branch, but the current average is six per building. Some locations have substantially fewer.
The other $500,000 annually would go to building maintenance. Although the capital needs of the library system are extensive, major renovations in recent years have been funded by private dollars and through Kenney’s Rebuild initiative.
West Philadelphia Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell focused her questioning on the timing of press conferences about Rebuild renovation projects in her district, including for Kingsessing Library and Recreation Center and another.
“I need two press conferences, we’d like to have them no later than the end of next week,” Blackwell said.
Blackwell is one of the few district City Council members facing a substantial re-election challenge in the May 21 Democratic primary. Former Fairmount Park Conservancy director Jamie Gauthier is challenging her in the race.