LSSI Finds More Resistance to Its Library-Management Bids

Recession-stricken communities fight to retain local control

February 16, 2011

Officials approved an agreement February 8 to keep the city of Stockton, California, running the Stockton–San Joaquin Public Library, continuing a partnership that dates back to 1910. In voting to maintain the arrangement, the Stockton City Council and the San Joaquin Board of Supervisors rejected a bid by Library Systems and Services (LSSI) to operate the system.

The decision is the latest in a series of RFP setbacks for the library management firm based in Germantown, Maryland. Although LSSI presently provides management services for 13 public library systems nationally, including four in California—Camarillo Public Library, Moorpark City Library, Shasta Public Libraries, and the Riverside County Library System—the firm’s recent bids to run additional libraries have faced stiff opposition.

A community group, Save Our Library, has filed two lawsuits to block the city of Santa Clarita, California, from withdrawing from Los Angeles County’s system and forming a municipal library that would be managed by LSSI; a third suit by resident Ed Shain claims the move violates the state’s open meeting law. Early last year a Florida judge dismissed a legal challenge brought by LSSI against a proposed rule that would require that state’s public library systems to be administered by a full-time librarian employed by the library’s governing body.

The American Library Association has weighed in as well, prompted by LSSI CEO Frank Pezzanite’s characterization of the library workplace (“A lot of libraries are atrocious. Their policies are all about job security. That’s why the profession is nervous about us.”) in a September 26, 2010, New York Times article about the company’s Stockton bid. ALA President Roberta Stevens responded initially in an October 3 letter to the editor that denounced the “demonization” of the public sector, and she continues to address the issue, as does Pezzanite.

Stockton takes stock

LSSI became a viable option for Stockton officials because the Stockton–San Joaquin city-county partnership had been showing signs of strain in recent years over how the city accounted for the county’s dollars, the Stockton Record reported February 12. However, the Friends of the Stockton Library and the Concerned Citizens Coalition of Stockton began raising concerns over losing local control of the library as soon as word of the negotiations with LSSI became public last fall.

Friends President Vince Perrin worried whether the group could continue its fundraising efforts if LSSI took over operations, since the firm is a private business and, the group claimed, not subject to open-government laws. “We’re a 501 (c) (3) operation. We cannot give nonprofit money to a profit-making company,” Perrin said in the October 1, 2010, Lodi News-Sentinel. Community members collected signatures opposing privatization and wrote newspaper opinion pieces and letters to the editor expressing their disapproval. “We did whatever we could do to make sure our voices were heard before any decisions were made,” said Concerned Citizens Coalition Chair Sylvia Kothe.

Five months later, after much negotiation and deliberation, County Administrator Manuel Lopez reported in a February 2 letter to the county board of supervisors that LSSI was promising to keep the libraries open longer, boost the books and materials budget, and increase the library’s fund balance. Moreover, the proposal indicated (PDF file) that no furlough or library closure days would be implemented, and the number of local library jobs would likely increase.

Nonetheless, Lopez recommended the renewal of the city-county partnership. The renegotiated city-county contract calls for quarterly reports detailing expenses for each of the system’s 12 branches and its bookmobile. Addressing county concerns over the possibility of future cuts, the contract requires county approval before service hours are reduced.

“The primary driver in the decision-making process was public opinion,” library Director Chris Freeman told American Libraries, emphasizing that “both the county board of supervisors and the city council recognize the value of public sentiment.” In a joint statement issued after LSSI’s bid was rejected, Perrin and Kothe expressed relief “that our elected officials continue to recognize the value of a vibrant public library. The city-county system has served library users for more than 100 years. Library staff have worked aggressively to increase efficiency and use technology to better aid library users in recent years.”

LSSI, in turn, issued a public statement reiterating that it would have given the county more control over the policies, focus, and finances of its libraries, as well as establishing a reserve fund for tighter economic times. “LSSI was passionate in its pursuit of the County library contract,” the statement said (PDF file), “because we know our public-private partnership is a successful model for communities seeking to improve library services, extend operating hours, keep librarians employed, and expand vital programming during these difficult economic times.”

Same story, different continent?

Perhaps in response to the growing domestic resistance it’s been facing, LSSI has recently set its sights overseas: the Independent (U.K.) reported February 15 that the company has set a goal to manage libraries in eight British local authorities by the end of 2011 and to capture 15% of the nation’s market within five years. Two weeks earlier, the January 31 Oxford Times ran a story about an LSSI proposal to take over management of the troubled Oxfordshire library system, keeping some or all of the 20 branches open while saving millions of pounds.

With British firms also expected to bid for library contracts, Stuart Fitzgerald, LSSI’s U.K. vice president, told the Independent, “It’s not impossible to imagine a mixed market economy for libraries that will raise overall standards and encourage further competition.” In response, ALA President Stevens said that private-sector firms “cannot guarantee the same level of transparency. Local authorities have to be absolutely clear on the terms of contract when entering into these deals. British taxpayers risk losing their own tax pounds to American firms.”

GORDON FLAGG, former senior editor of American Libraries, is a Chicago-based freelancer.