After months of negotiations, the Liverpool Public Library board of trustees and Friends group were unable to come up with a memorandum of understanding that would formalize the relationship between the two entities.
As a result, the Friends group will hold a vote on its own dissolution at its Jan. 14 meeting.
“I’m very sad,” said Pam Sprague, president of the Friends board. “It’s not like we didn’t try. It’s the way it worked out.”
She emphasized that the inability to reach an agreement had nothing to do with any kind of personality conflict.
“I’ve heard things in the community, just people filling in the blanks, but the truth is, there are no blanks to fill in,” Sprague said. “It’s very cut and dried. They wanted us to agree to something that we in our hearts could not agree to. It’s not because of a personality conflict, definitely not. It’s a flat-out difference of opinion.”
“We have always been willing to compromise and be creative to find solutions for the benefit of both organizations,” said Mark Spadafore, president of the board of trustees. “As the library Board of Trustees, we have to move forward for the benefit of the library and the community at large. It is up to the Friends’ board to decide how they will move forward. We are willing to work with the Friends if they want to be a partner organization.”
But Sprague said the library’s decision left the Friends little choice.
“Our mission, our sole purpose, is to raise awareness about the Liverpool Public Library,” she said. “Now we can’t do that. They won’t let us. We can’t raise money for them. So we don’t feel we have much of a choice.”
The Friends group is a nonprofit organization staffed by volunteers dedicated to supporting the library. Sprague said it has a number of duties, ranging from running the used book sale to funding the Arts Al!ve series to replacing appliances in the library’s staff room.
Sprague said that when the Friends group was formed roughly 12 years ago, no such agreement seemed necessary because the group was small and relatively informal. However, that changed as membership exploded; Sprague said membership has grown 50 percent in the last six to eight years. The group worked on library fundraisers without a hitch until the board asked for a memorandum of understanding (MOU) last fall.
“MOUs are the appropriate method to define the operation of organizations with common goals, but differing responsibilities on how to achieve those goals,” Spadafore said. “In the instant of this case, the Friends Article of Incorporation serves to ‘support the library.’ The library provides informational services to its service area. Public resources are always limited, so a written relationship defining how those resources are to be effectively allocated is essential, especially in a public supported institution.”
The request for an MOU did not come about, as some in the community have speculated, because the library wanted more control of the Friends group, said LPL Executive Director Jean Polly.
“The MOU outlines each organization’s responsibilities to the other,” she said. “This is a best practice recommended by United for Libraries and the American Library Associations.”
But no MOU had existed for a dozen years. Why was it necessary now? It’s likely because the Friends had received a bequest from a library patron in the amount of $304,000 last summer, and there was a conflict between the board and the Friends over how it should be administered.
Alfred Richberg left the sum to the Friends group in his will, declaring that it should be spent on “services already in place with an emphasis on students.” The MOU was, in part, to determine how the money should be distributed.
The Friends’ leadership and trustees began discussing the proposed MOU in August. But by mid-October, it was clear that no compromise could be reached. Sprague said there were two sticking points on which she and her fellow Friends board members felt they could not compromise.
The first had to do with when the Friends give money to the LPL.
“We give the library money twice a year. That always worked out well, especially after the book sale,” Sprague said. “We’d keep $5,000 in our account for any expenses that came in — there are a lot of things that we pay for — and we’d give them anything above and beyond that. Sometimes it would be as much as $20,000, depending on the sales and the time of year. They decided they wanted us to give them the money 90 days after each event. So that’s one thing we rolled around.”
Even that likely wouldn’t have been the death knell for negotiations. But the LPL board had another condition that Sprague said the Friends couldn’t accept, this one dealing with the $304,000 bequest from Alfred Richberg.
“The Friends had discussed it, and we decided to form a committee to accept proposals from the library and look them over. If the proposal fit the criteria laid out in the will, it would be granted,” Sprague said. “One of their suggestions was, ‘How about if you get a proposal and decide not to approve it, we form another committee with one Friends member, one member of the library board and one neutral party, just someone from the community?’”
Sprague said that idea was one with which the Friends couldn’t get on board.
“We just couldn’t agree to that,” she said. “The money was left to the Friends to be stewards of. It’s our fiduciary responsibility. We couldn’t just leave the distribution of that money to some unknown member of the community. It just wasn’t a good idea.”
With negotiations at a crossroads, the Friends were advised to remove their belongings from the library. Sprague and other board members did so in early November.
“Since a Memorandum of Understanding could not be reached, the library needed to reallocate that space for library purposes,” Polly said.
Without a purpose, the Friends’ board felt it had no choice but to ask its membership to vote to dissolve the organization.
“We’re proposing to our membership, if we vote to dissolve, all of our assets, after our bills are paid, will to the Central New York Community Foundation, into a special fund set up called the Alfred Richberg Fund for the Liverpool Public Library,” Sprague said. “Then the library would apply to them with their proposals. The Community Foundation grants money at 5 percent annually. They watch over something like $40 million. Plus, the library will be granted interest, which is nice. That money will last a long time.”
The vote will take place at the Friends’ Jan. 14 meeting. A majority of the members in attendance must approve the measure. A representative from the CNY Community Foundation will be present to answer questions, as will the Friends’ lawyer. Sprague said a letter went out to Friends members last month to advise them of the vote.
She also pointed out that the decision was reached by the entire board, not just one member.
“This isn’t just one person’s decision. The whole board is constantly meeting, and this is what we thought was best,” Sprague said. “The board is a fantastic bunch of people. We all have different feelings, different approaches, but at the end of the day, we all felt this was the right decision to make. We’ve consulted with our attorney, with the attorney general, with the executor of the will — this is the right thing.”
Still, this was not the way Sprague hoped to see things end, she said.
“It’s really kind of sad, how it ended up. I really didn’t think it would end like this,” she said. “Our group is full of just amazing people. They’re so dedicated. Our membership is up to around 375 people. They did a lot of work, and that work is worth a lot of money. Communities depend on volunteers to do the work that an employer or organization won’t pay for.”
At this point, there is no plan to replace the Friends group at LPL.
“The library has moved the Friends former activities internal to library functions,” Spadafore said. “If people are interested in supporting the library, they can go to lpl.org/support-the-library. There are many ways in which people can support the library through that site.”
While all sides expressed disappointment in the final result, Sprague said this move, if approved, would be good for the library.
“The way it will end up, assuming the vote goes the way we think it will, that money will last a long time. I think Mr. Richberg would be happy about that,” she said. “This is guaranteed for the library. They’re going to get something like $15,000 a year, as long as their proposals fit the language of the will. At the end of the day, it doesn’t make a difference how the money gets there. It’s that it gets there.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.