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A member of the public addresses Fullerton’s Library Board of Trustees during a special meeting held in the Hunt Library on May 5, 2018.

Matthew Leslie

About 45 members of the public attended a special meeting of the Fullerton Library Board of Trustees held on the morning of Saturday, May 5 at the now closed Hunt Branch Library located at 201 S. Basque Ave. The meeting was called, in part, to address concerns about the possibility of the city council selling the property, which is currently leased to neighboring church Grace Ministries International. In addition to library staff from the Main Branch, observers of the meeting included Councilmember Bruce Whitaker, who, along with Councilmember Jesus Silva, has advocated for keeping the Hunt building as a public facility.

Before the meeting, Library Director Judy Booth led visitors on a rare tour of the mid-century modernist building’s spacious interior, meeting rooms, and charming atrium spaces, which all appeared to be in good condition. The William Pereira designed structure was donated to Fullerton by Hunt Foods Chairman and art collector Norton Simon in 1962. Norton Simon once had his offices in the adjacent Pereira office building now owned outright by Grace Ministries. The campus, including the library, was home to sculptures by Rodin and Giacometti, but were eventually moved to the Pasadena museum that now bears the collector’s name.

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Community members enjoy a rare opportunity to tour the Hunt Branch Library, now leased to a church, and normally closed to the public.

Most of the Hunt Branch’s books were moved to the Main Library when Grace Ministries moved into the space three years ago. White plastic chains were strung across shelves now filled with books owned by the church. Other stacks still holding parts of the library’s collection were shrink-wrapped to prevent access to the books.

The meeting was called to order at 10:35 a.m. with all five trustees present: Chair Sean Paden, and members Ellen Ballard, Ryan Cantor, Joshua Dale, and Carl Byers.

Following public comments on items unrelated to the agenda, Library Director Judy Booth reported that at it’s most recent meeting on May 1 the Fullerton City Council decided in closed session to schedule a study session about the Hunt Branch, that the Hunt Branch would also be on the agenda of the council’s May 15 meeting, and that Councilmember Jennifer Fitzgerald stated that she favored the Fullerton City Council appointing themselves as members of the Fullerton Library Board of Trustees and establishing a new library advisory council.

Before proceeding to Regular Business, Chair Sean Paden asked his fellow trustees to consider all six items on the agenda, listed below, concurrently in order to allow members of the public to address their comments to all of the items at once.

Thirteen people, including two former members of the Library Board of Trustees, spoke during the public comments period. All favored keeping the building in the public realm, though suggestions about its ultimate use varied among speakers.

Several speakers recalled attending the library on a regular basis, either as young students themselves or as adults with children of their own. Lauralyn Escher of the nonprofit All the Arts for All the Kids recalled seeing Norton Simon’s August Rodin sculptures installed at the Hunt.

One speaker noted that most of the parents in the immediate area served by the Hunt Branch could not afford to pay for summer camps in other facilities, and that adding programming from cultural non-profits at the Hunt site would benefit lower income children.

Elizabeth Gibbs spoke of the building as an heirloom that should be cared for instead of sold. Others advocated working with the Los Angeles Conservancy and seeking funding related to the building’s significance as a mid-century modern building, now over fifty years old and eligible for various historic designations.

Several speakers thought that the park surrounding the Hunt could be incorporated into programming as well.

Vince Buck, a former library board member, stated that the library was shut down not because of nearby homeless people, but because the city council had cut the budget to the library, and the former library director made the choice to use all funds for the main branch. He suggested partnering with the Getty, among other institutions, as well as Cal State Fullerton. He noted that a representative of Senator Josh Newman had appeared at the last meeting of the trustees, suggesting that the office might be able to find money for the Hunt.

5th District City Council candidate Ahmad Zahra challenged the library trustees to provide a solid argument to keep the facility open (which he favors) in order to counter an anticipated argument that not enough money was available to operate the library.

Two speakers wanted the Hunt to become a shelter for the homeless people, suggesting that the Hunt could be leased out and paid for with housing vouchers.

The trustees responded to public comments and questions before proceeding to the six agenda items. Trustee Ellen Ballard stated that the public comments reflected the view of the library board and expressed support for involving other non-profits in the Hunt’s operation. Carl Byers cited the public’s participation at the meeting as a reason for maintaining the library board as a separate entity from the city council. Ryan Cantor stated that the Hunt would need a separate identity distinct from the Main Branch and adequate funding to re-open. An appropriate use of the building would require that the facility be open free of charge and indiscriminately to the public, and have a literary focus. If the facility were to be sold, however, the funds should go directly to the Fullerton Public Library, and not the city’s General Fund.

1. Define the intent of the gift of Hunt Library

Copies of the original grant deed to the property were include in the agenda, and passed around the room. It was reported that the so-called Reverter Clause, which stipulated that the property’s ownership would be returned to the Norton Simon Foundation if the Hunt was ever to cease its function as a library, was no longer in effect.

2. Renegotiate the lease of Hunt Library to Grace Ministries International

Saying that “we were supposed to have had this conversation three years ago,” Ryan Cantor moved that the trustees recommend increasing the month-to-month lease for the Hunt to $ 5,000.00 per month from the current rate of $ 1,500.00, based on his own “rough capital assessment” of the site. Trustee Cantor emphasized that the $ 5,000.00 figure was just a starting point, and was not meant as a long term solution. The trustees discussed whether or not rent could be structured in such a way that payments would directly benefit the library instead of into the city’s General Fund.

Chair Paden suggested staying with the current lease rate, but adding a significant maintenance fee, acknowledging that such fees are normally less than the actual rent, but could represent a higher figure than the rent in this case. Trustee Byers predicted that GMI would opt to vacate the building rather than pay such a dramatically increased rent. Mr. Paden’s motion failed to secure a second, and failed.

Addressing the question about what repairs might be needed for the building, Director Booth said that the heating and air conditioning system would need to be replaced. Trustee Ryan said that no study had been made to determine what facility’s needs would be over the next ten years.

Trustee Cantor formally motioned that the lease rate be raised to a market rate of $ 5,000.00 because GMI was not acting to fulfill the mission of the library with its occupancy. In making this qualification, he announced that he would support leasing the Hunt for a symbolic one dollar per year to an agency that would operate it in a way that supported its mission. Some trustees were concerned that recommending such a dramatic increase in rent would only antagonize the city council. Ultimately, the motion failed on a 3 – 2 vote.

3. Formally request the City Council to appropriate funds to operate the Hunt Library as a branch library

Sean Paden suggested tabling this item pending more information about the actual cost to operate the Hunt as a library. Ryan Cantor maintained that the figure of $ 1.3 million per year estimated in 2012 a report was still valid for an operating budget that would fund the library being open for two shifts a day over a five day week.

Trustee Ellen Ballard didn’t think the Hunt could operate viably as a branch library in the way it had in the past because it was too small to hold a significant collection of books.

Ryan Cantor motioned that $ 75,000.00 be allocated from the budget to develop a long range plan for the Hunt for fiscal year 2018/2019. This motion passed on a 3 – 2 vote.

4. Consider possibility of partnering with community organizations at Hunt Library

Mr. Cantor led the discussion with a list of possible partners who might provide programming at the Hunt. His list included the Fullerton Arboretum, The Muckenthaler Cultural Center, Fulleton School District (All the Arts for All the Kids), La Habra Children’s Museum and others. Other trustees and members fo the public suggested additional names, which were added to the list. The trustees agreed to divide the names among themselves and contact prospective non-profits to gauge their interest in responding to a potential Request for Proposals that might eventually be issued by the library.

5. Library Board of Trustees and outside legal representation

Director Judy Booth reported that, at the direction of the trustees, she had asked Fullerton’s City Attorney, Dick Jones, about the process for the trustees to hire separate legal representation. Mr. Jones was reported to have referred her to Fullerton Municipal Code, Section 2.16.40 (“The City Attorney shall be attorney for the Library Board. When required he shall attend their meetings, and shall perform such other services for the Board as may be necessary,” suggesting that the city council would not recognize any difference between legal representation of the library and of the city itself. Trustee Cantor motioned that the trustees request the presence of the city attorney for their regularly scheduled meeting in June “to discuss possible pending litigation.” The motion passed on a 3 to 2 vote.

6. Schedule further meetings about Hunt Library at Hunt Library

Further actions were deferred to the next meeting of the trustees on May 24 at the Main Branch. At meeting’s end, Ryan Cantor commented about the actions and attitudes of the trustees by stating that “we’re working hard on this, and we’re not giving up.”

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The Hunt Branch Library’s rear entrance and grounds.

Two Fullerton City Councilmembers speaking about the closed Hunt Branch Library on August 15, 2017:

“With a partnership with some local groups, non-profits, we might be able to keep it as an asset and make it available to the public.” — Jesus Silva

“I favor selling it.” — Doug Chaffee

 

Matthew Leslie

The Hunt Branch of the Fullerton Public Library became the topic of a brief discussion by members of the Fullerton City Council last Tuesday night during a budget update from City Manager Ken Domer. Noting a line in the budget about the below market rate currently paid by mega-church Grace Ministries International (GMI) to lease the property, located adjacent to their church, Councilmember Jesus Silva asked for a workshop to discuss opportunities in which local non-profits might use the closed library to benefit the community instead.

“I know we don’t have the funding to operate it ourselves, the city,” Mr. Silva said, “but maybe with a partnership with some local groups, non-profits, we might be able to keep it as an asset and make it available to the public.”

Mr. Silva’s suggestion that the landmark structure donated to the city by Norton Simon in 1962 might once again be made available to the public was too much for Mayor pro tem Doug Chaffee, who immediately responded by saying that there was no need for such a workshop, and “I favor selling it.”

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The Hunt Branch Library, given to Fullerton by Norton Simon in 1962, now leased to a neighboring megachurch for private use for less than the cost of a two bedroom apartment. Image from OC Register, used without permission.

The Hunt Branch Library, is a mid-century modernist gem designed by world famous architect William Pereira. It was operated as a branch of the Fullerton Public Library for five decades, serving generations of Fullertonians, until successive city councils began routinely underfunding it.

Following budget cutbacks that led to the library being mostly closed all for but two days a week, the facility was closed entirely in 2013 because library staff felt unsafe due to the presence of a sizable homeless camp that developed (enabled by the city who provided portable toilets and regular visits from the four Fullerton Police Homeless Liaison Officers) along the railroad tracks directly behind it. Not long after its closure, the council approved a month-to-month lease of the 4,500 square foot library and the surrounding property to GMI for $1,500.00 per month—less than the cost of a two bedroom apartment in Fullerton. No competitive bids were sought by the city in advance of this agreement.

GMI and the Hunt Library

Left to right: GMI’s 2008 sanctuary building, Norton Simon’s Hunt office building, the Hunt Library.

Four years later, the Hunt Branch is still closed to the public and is still being leased far below market value, but the homeless camp that was the stated cause for its closure has long since been removed by the city–“cleaned out” so that an agreement to lease the property could be approved by the council.

Meanwhile, the city council has rejected requests from the public to consider appropriate funding to the Fullerton Public Library to enable the operation of the Hunt as a second library branch for a city of 140,000 people.  Awaiting a budget for the branch, the Fullerton Public Library Board of Trustees has held off on presenting a long term plan that would define unique uses to complement the Main Library branch while also serving the southwest quadrant of the city as a library resource.

Now more than half century old, the Hunt Library is a distinctive example of mid-20th century modern architecture, but, alarmingly, enjoys absolutely no historical protections against being significantly altered or razed.  When the city council voted in 2013 to authorize then City Manager Joe Felz to commence formal negotiations with Grace Ministries to temporarily lease the Hunt Branch, the council also unanimously approved supporting an application by local non-profit Fullerton Heritage to place the Hunt Branch building on the National Registry of Historic Places. To date, no such listing has taken place, reportedly because of complications arising from the attempt to concurrently list Norton Simon’s Hunt office building, located adjacent to the library, and also designed by Pereira. (GMI purchased the Hunt office property several years ago, adding a large contemporary structure on the west side of the site that dwarfs the original office building.)

The prospect of selling off the Hunt Library might be attractive to anyone hoping to partially stave off the looming financial deficiencies facing Fullerton in the next five years, as reported by staff during the city’s 2017-2018 budget hearings. However, one has to wonder just how much money Doug Chaffee thinks the city can get for a building that is so devalued by this council that they rent it monthly for a mere $ 1,500.00.

The Hunt’s value might increase dramatically, however, if none of the promised historical protections were delivered, allowing a new owner to tear it down and use the property for something else entirely. With nothing to legally prevent the building from being razed or significantly altered, a much larger and different structure might be built on the sight.

If Doug Chaffee has his way, and the Hunt Branch Library is sold, the public will lose not only a valued public library in an underserved part of the city, but also a priceless part of the Fullerton’s history, with nothing in place to protect a unique building that once showcased sculpture by Giacometti and Rodin, and served as an emblem of commitment to a community and it’s future.

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The Hunt Branch Library once served Fullerton’s families, but is now a hostage to the city’s impending budget shortfall.

All 79 precinct votes counted, the Orange County Registrar of Voters reports the following results for the contest for three seats on the Fullerton City Council:

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More of the same(ish)

Lobbyist mayor Jennifer Fitzgerald was re-elected with the most votes, followed by second place finisher Bruce Whitaker.

Third place went to Jesus Silva, but results are preliminary because not all absentee ballots have been counted. In both 2010 and 2012 post-election night absentee ballot counts moved a candidate up into a winning position, displacing a candidate who appeared to have been successful on election night.  Jesus Silva leads Larry Bennett by a relatively comfortable margin of 779 votes. It will be difficult for Larry Bennett to overcome this deficit, but late absentee ballots generally favor conservative voters.

Larry Bennett was the choice of the establishment axis that gave him the support of retiring incumbent Jan Flory, and Councilmember Doug Chaffee both of whom declined to endorse Jesus Silva.

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Measure ii has passed, cursing the city with a horrible districts elections map until at least the next census in 2020.

More on the implications of the election later.

 

 

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