By Igor Studenkov | Bugle Staff
A seemingly small change in the Niles Public Library bylaws sent its board into a heated argument, complete with accusations of secrecy and misuse of taxpayer money.
On May 18, the library board of trustees considered adding a sentence saying that everyone who comes to the library can take part in its programs, so long as staff was sure that Niles residents were accommodated first. The change was minor, as the previously existing policy already allowed non-residents to attend its programs and events.
However, trustee Carolyn Drblik took issue with the change. She argued that the library wasn’t doing enough to meet the needs of residents, and said staff should focus spending on programs that cater to those patrons and look into following Park Ridge Public Library’s example by charging non-residents fees. But, the rest of the board pushed back, ultimately approving the change 4-1.
The Niles Public Library District collects taxes from all of Niles, as well as most of the unincorporated sections of Maine Township between Niles, Des Plaines and Glenview.
Like the majority of libraries in Chicago and its suburbs, Niles Library allowed district residents and non-residents the same access to programs and events. Some programs required registration using library cards, but the library cards didn’t necessarily have to be Niles Library cards. Any library card that’s registered with the Niles Library would work.
Library Director Susan Lempke said that, in her opinion, having programs open to everyone fits with public libraries’ mission.
“Public libraries in general are about sharing resources,” she said.
Lempke also argued that an inclusive policy helps attract more attendees to the library’s more niche programs. Having those programs open to non-residents brings in enough attendees to make those programs viable.
“For smaller things, and to fill out empty seats in the program, I don’t feel like that’s a problem,” Lempke said.
She also noted that, while non-residents use the Niles Library, village residents also use other narby libraries. At an April meeting, she described Skokie Public Library as complementary, because it’s close to the Niles Library and offers a wide range of programs.
Board President Linda Ryan said she called Chicago, Des Plaines and Skokie libraries to see how they treated non-residents, noting that all of the libraries welcomed her even though she identified herself as a non-resident up front.
Drblik said the issue is with how the library spends money collected from Niles taxpayers.
“It’s not even who goes first, it’s how much it costs to put up actual programs,” she said. “Maybe if we have small enrollment, we need to rethink if those programs are what residents of Niles need.”
Drblik said she heard complaints from many residents that most of the people who use the library aren’t from Niles. As it stands, she argued that the library was spending too much money on people who aren’t even paying taxes in the district.
The trustee also said she has repeatedly asked Lempke how much programs such as the “Sweet Home Chicago” confectionery history exhibit cost the library and how many people attended it, but never received answers to her questions.
The library director responded by saying that the library doesn’t regularly check how many people attend each program, or where they come from. The staff does do test periods to gauge how many people attend programs during certain time periods.
Drblik also noted that the Park Ridge Public Library imposes fees on non-residents to attend its programs.
“One of the [Park Ridge] library trustees referred to people coming to the Park Ridge library as parasites,” Lempke said, adding that it says a lot about the attitude that drives such policies.
According to Park Ridge Herald-Advocate, during an Oct. 21, 2014, Park Ridge Library board trustee Robert Trizna called non-residents “parasites” in response to a report of declining computer usage after the library implemented computer use fees for non-residents.
“We are not being sucked dry by parasites,” he was quoted to have said. “We are actually providing services for the people actually paying taxes for those services. “
In the ensuing back and forth, Drblik said Lempke should release the information about how much the library spends on events, but the director said she couldn’t provide the information the trustee was looking for. Ryan ended the argument by calling for a vote.
The trustees voted 4-1 to change the language, with Drblik voting against the bylaws change.