No stay of execution from Counties Council for three library branches

Austin Kapcala, 8, of Morewood, was among those protesting the impending closure of three area libraries, including the Morewood branch, prior to the Aug. 22 United Counties of SD&G Council meeting. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

Nelson Zandbergen
Nation Valley News

CORNWALL — Protesters hoping to save three as-yet doomed branches of the SD&G Library system failed to secure a stay of execution at Monday’s United Counties Council meeting.  

Unhappy with the autonomous Library Board’s decision to close the branches in Morewood, St. Andrews West and Dalkeith early next month, the opponents appealed directly to the politicians supplying the largest portion of the Library budget, at the Aug. 22 session on Pitt Street.

The atmosphere was tense as council itself was deeply divided on the board’s plan. It began with the 6-6 defeat of a motion by North Stormont Mayor Chris McDonell to amend the agenda and force a vote on conducting a separate review of the board’s closure plan.

Public delegations from the three affected communities thus had no prospect of seeing power exercised to their liking that morning. Nonetheless, the chamber echoed with withering criticism of the impending closures and the process leading to the board’s sudden announcement on July 29.

The Library Board is composed of four members of Counties Council and three citizen representatives.

The board’s long-time chair, Bill McGimpsey, deputy mayor of North Stormont, found himself under fire from both the protesters and some of his colleagues at the council table. 

Echoing many of the concerns heard from the public at the same meeting, Warden Jamie MacDonald lambasted the “lack of transparency” and “zero consultation” that produced the closure decision “at 10 a.m. on Highland Games long weekend with little notice.” Added the warden and deputy mayor of North Glengarry, “Are you aware how many July meetings of the Library Board have occurred in previous years? Zero.”

People  had “no choice” but to approach Counties Council on the matter, observed a “very disappointed” MacDonald, noting their branches would be closed Sept. 3 — before the next scheduled meeting of the library board.

He asserted that earlier meetings of the board, in April and May, supported holding public consultations on the subject, which never happened. And the Dalkeith branch was only added to the closure list “30 seconds” before the start of the last Library Board meeting, according to MacDonald.

“How can anyone around this table be comfortable with such a flawed process?” he asked, adding he “loved the excuse” that residents “would “just kick and scream” when consulted. “If you look around here today, that’s what’s happening.”

“This whole process of closing libraries been a joke,” the warden said, tracing it back to the attempted closure of the Crysler branch a decade ago when “the North Stormont deputy mayor made a passionate plea for rural libraries.”

MacDonald pleaded for “a plan” instead of “cherry picking who’s next” for closure..

“Does it not make sense to close Finch, South Mountain and Williamsburg come budget time next February?” he rhetorically asked. “Why not? There’s no concrete plans not to.”

Noting that local politicians complain of the damage done to rural Ontario by decisions rendered in Toronto, he suggested they “look in the mirror” in this case. “We are killing our small towns.”

South Stormont Mayor Jim Bancroft. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

South Stormont Mayor Jim Bancroft. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

“I would ask the board to take another look at this, develop a policy and bring it forward” for council to consider during budget deliberations, said South Stormont Mayor Jim Bancroft.

Bancroft said he agreed with MacDonald on who’s causing the destruction of rural Ontario. “We are doing the same,” he said, somberly, also expressing skepticism that library users in St. Andrews West would travel to the Long Sault branch instead. “Not going to happen.”

South Dundas Deputy Mayor Jim Locke suggested it was time for the local municipalities and townships to take greater control over the affairs of the Library.

McGimpsey, appearing unfazed by the flack, told his colleagues, “I’m going to support a lot of what was said here today. You might be surprised.”

However, he highlighted the challenge at the affected branches by repeating usage numbers from 2015. According to McGimpsey, 44 individuals withdrew books from the Dalkeith branch in 2015, while 54 and 99 respectively borrowed from the Morewood and St. Andrews branches in the same year.  “It’s not enough for these facilities to continue to operate, particularly when people say they are going to adjacent communities to do business anyway,” he said.

He promoted a model system of libraries “centralized, wheelchair-accessible, air-conditioned, clean and safe for staff” in SD&G.

McGimpsey did not respond to South Stormont Deputy Mayor Frank Prevost’s call for the scheduling of another Library Board meeting before the Sept. 3 closures.

While supportive of each other, the public delegations did make individual cases for preserving their particular branches.

Leo Lehtiniemi and Brenda Noble of Dalkeith noted that their branch was furthest away from the others, at 23 km — equivalent to driving from Cornwall to Long Sault, Noble exclaimed.

She also drew attention to the branch’s low cost. “Dalkeith requires about 0.1 percent of the counties’ budget, about $27,000,” Counties Council could recover that money by cutting only 21 hours across the SD&G employee base, Noble suggested.

Cal Martin of St. Andrews West delivered an impassioned plea for the facility in that community, noting it was in the “top half of the 18 branches” by usage. The branch has been “consistently at seventh or better” in the last eight months, he said, contrasting that with Morrsiburg, where book borrowing has fallen in seven of the last eight months. He also calculated the St. Andrews West branch as fifth cheapest per active user.

Speaking for Morewood, Laurie Rae observed that North Dundas Mayor Duncan, while commending local efforts to keep the branch open, “in no uncertain terms made it clear that he will not support us.”

“Our town has been in decline since the school closed. Why would we not support what remains?” inquired Rae.

 Acknowledging the needs of seniors, children and small communities, Duncan later told council, “I don’t think there’s anybody around this table, or on the board, who for a second doesn’t care at the end of the day. It’s how we get to it.”

Chief Administrative Officer Tim Simpson delivered a legal opinion that closed the book on direct council intervention in the affairs of the County Library system. Simpson reported that council can’t overrule the board’s decisions, and that similarly, the Ontario Ombudsman has no jurisdiction over the board. According to the recent legal advice, SD&G must have a minimum of one library branch per municipality as constituted since amalgamation.

Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

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