Democrats Dump on Private Libraries

Bill aims to discourage partnerships that can offset cutbacks.

California’s unemployment rate rose to 12 percent in July. More than 2 million Californians are out of work, and a third of those people have been unemployed for more than a year. So what is the state Legislature doing? It wants to prevent cash-strapped local governments from privatizing libraries.

Apparently, the folks in Sacramento believe that cities looking for ways to reduce expenses are better off with no libraries at all than with privately operated libraries. Assembly Bill 438, sponsored by Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, is headed to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk because Democrats in Sacramento voted to control local decisions and prevent cities from making choices about what is best for their own libraries.

The bill represents a dramatic overreach by Sacramento into local communities. Via AB438 the Legislature mandates that cities choosing to privatize are not allowed to reduce the size of their library staffs. Further, the bill mandates that every single current library employee must keep his or her job in any future public-private partnership agreement, which explains why powerful unions have been pushing the bill. Cities will also be forced to spend time and money preparing and submitting studies and reports to Sacramento in order to obtain the state’s permission to privatize.

“We hope the governor will veto the bill, since he has talked a lot about the importance of retaining local authority,” said Dan Carrigg of the League of California Cities.

California has been a national leader in partnering with the private sector to operate libraries. In fact, the first-ever public-private partnership between a local government and private operator was signed in 1997 between Riverside County and Library Systems & Services Inc. and this agreement is still in place today.

How did that work out?

In June 2010, Riverside County published a report highlighting the results of their 13-year partnership with LSSI. The study found taxpayers have enjoyed better services with longer operating hours. Staffing has more than doubled. The number of open library branches increased from 24 to 33 and more than $15 million was invested in new facilities or major renovations.

Sounds like success. But the Legislature won’t stand for happy taxpayers, innovation or expansion. So they are putting up union-backed roadblocks. Meanwhile, cities like Santa Clarita, Moorpark, Camarillo and Redding have followed Riverside’s example.

Last year the Redding City Council unanimously extended the city’s contract with a private company operating three libraries. Kim Niemer, Redding’s director of community services, said, “Shasta Public Libraries now provide … better service, more convenient hours, new technology, clean facilities, courteous staff and programs designed by and for their communities.”

Local communities have both the constitutional authority and the demonstrable ability to balance tradeoffs when deciding how to run their own libraries. As Santa Clarita Mayor Marsha McLean recently wrote, “In an era of diminishing funding for local government services and overextended budgets, contracting for library services is one way to improve libraries, while reducing the tax burden on our residents. … It is ironic that supporters of AB438 would take decision-making out of local communities and place it in the hands of state legislators and special interests.”

Sen. Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, says the bill ties local governments’ hands. He’s right.

The Legislature has no business micromanaging local libraries. Gov. Brown one recent day vetoed 12 bills, 11 of which were sponsored by his own Democratic Party. Unless he wants to be the state’s librarian, the governor should veto this bill, too.

Harris Kenny is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation (, a nonpartisan Los Angeles-based think tank. This piece originally appeared in The Orange County Register on September 19, 2011.