Leasing out the Hunt Branch of the Fullerton Public Library is back on the City Council agenda for Tuesday, October 15. The Library Board of Trustees authorized the temporary closing of the Hunt earlier this year in response to reports of unsafe conditions surrounding the facility. It has never reopened. The City Council eventually adopted an annual budget with no funds dedicated to operating the Hunt, and instead approved the concept of leasing the facility to neighboring Grace Ministries International (GMI) while the Library Board, and everyone else, explored ways to reopen it two years later with improved access and services.
Now it’s back, at number 19 of 20 on the Oct. 15 City Council agenda, following two other regular business items and no fewer than seven public hearings, not to mention a packed consent calendar from which any number of items might be pulled for consideration by the Council. Suffice it to say that no one will hear anything about the beleaguered Hunt library until very late into the evening. And, no mention of it was made on the agenda forecast for October 15 on the last City Council agenda. This time the staff has included the actual lease and the full amount of square footage, 4,500, bringing the rate to .30 cents per square foot.
The agenda item is a bring-back of the proposal last heard and defeated in a tie vote in August, with Mayor Whitaker and Greg Sebourn dissenting, while Doug Chaffee and Jan Flory supported the measure. Jennifer Fitzgerald was absent during the meeting. Ms. Flory and Mr. Chaffee requested the reconsideration of the lease. Library Board member Vince Buck had previously expressed frustration to the Council and the Mayor that no progress at all had been made in planning for the reopening of the Hunt six months into the 18 month closure period envisioned to allow for the development of a new, improved vision for the facility.
The Library Board of Trustees, some of whom complained that they were not consulted on the terms of the lease, have now had the chance to vet it. Now that they have had the opportunity to review it, at least a few–probably the majority–of the Board support the proposed lease to GMI. However, they did stipulate that GMI not use the facility for library purposes, a service offered by representatives of GMI at the August City Council meeting, and corrections to the lease need to be made to reflect the actual record regarding the Board’s consideration of the proposal. The return of Jennifer Fitzgerald virtually assures the passage of the item by a now familiar 3 – 2 vote (perhaps a 4 – 1, who knows?) in favor of the lease.
Mayor Bruce Whitaker used his monthly Talk About Town in September to vigorously campaign for the library’s reopening, arguing that the very features that made it unattractive as a business site should be considered virtues as a library. Library Director Maureen Gabelin stated that evening that she “would love to open this place up and have it be a thriving library.”
Different “solutions” to the “problem” of funding the Hunt have been offered, from selling the land and relocating the library to a strip mall to delivering library services instead to existing community centers throughout the city. But abandoning a mid-century gem designed by a world famous architect just because it doesn’t face a major street like the Main Branch seems shortsighted, to say the least.
Although the proposal calls for the lease of the building for between 18 and 24 months, there is no guarantee that the facility will ever reopen as a library. And it is encouraging the see the Library Board step up to challenge a predetermined plan to hand off the Hunt to GMI, and insist on reopening the facility within a reasonable amount of time. At worst, however, this may be the last opportunity to keep the Hunt Branch from becoming just another asset to be sold off by the city. Although that possibility would seem unlikely to some, it cannot escape our attention.
The primary question ought to be why the City Council cannot find the money to keep the library open now, and why they think they will be able to do so two years from now.
An earlier version of this story spelled the name of Greg Sebourn incorrectly.