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A council debate Friends of the Manteca Library should check out
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The Friends of the Manteca Library take note. The Manteca City Council on Tuesday is considering going on record opposing Assembly Bill 438.

The proposed legislation by Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, requires voters to approve a city council decision to provide library services through a private contractor. Of course, like all legislation in Sacramento it isn’t all that well thought out since a number of counties - including San Joaquin - fund and operate library systems.

San Joaquin County - as well as the City of Stockton - earlier this year passed on a proposal to contract with a private firm to run the Stockton-San Joaquin. Manteca’s city council at the moment doesn’t have all that much say in how the library is run as it has allowed the county to use the per capita tax to contract services with the City of Stockton. Manteca’s financial commitment currently is to provide and maintain the branch building, pay for utilities, and contribute money for extra hours.

Councilman Vince Hernandez is bringing AB 438 to his colleague’s attention. The argument against the legislation is simple. It basically undermines a city’s ability to operate efficiently and effectively especially when decisions are critical to balance city budgets. Forcing a vote on a contract at the next regularly scheduled election could delay action between 18 and 24 months which has the potential of making a serious financial situation worse.

At the same time, it is being argued that a public contract is an administrative decision of a city council. Opponents note a passage in the California Constitution that states the power of referendum applies “only to acts which are legislative in character and not to administrative or executive acts.” Under such language the approval of contracts and policies are the type of administrative decisions council members were elected to make.

The courts have upheld that on growth cap referendums and such by noting they can only be advisory in nature. Most elected leaders, though, respect the will of the people as the Sacramento Municipal Utility District did when a similar non-binding referendum overwhelmingly came out in favor of closing the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant in the late 1980s.

The Friends of the Manteca Library vigorously opposed the recent attempt to retain a private firm to operate the Stockton-San Joaquin Library System that includes branches in Manteca, Ripon, and Lathrop.

The private sector firm LSSI contended they could provide more service for less money.

The Friends of the Library feared that it ultimately could mean patrons would have to pay for services. That, however, is not the LSSI model - or allowed in their contract for that matter - in Riverside County.

LSSI embraces technology and pooled purchasing on a much higher level than the local library system. They also have another ace in the hole to accomplish lower operating costs and more services. They hire their own employees - often former public library workers - but do so with a private pension system that is significantly less costly and less generous than public employee pensions.

Perhaps the real answer isn’t contracting out private libraries as it is reducing the benefit costs of library employees.

In that sense AB 438 should be seen for what it is - yet another move to protect public employee pensions and jobs. It certainly isn’t about providing the best library services at the most efficient cost to the taxpayers.

The real question shouldn’t be whether to contract library services with private firms but why aren’t we reforming the public pension system.

At any rate, the debate at Tuesday’s council meeting over AB 438 is something that the Friends of the Manteca Library might want to check out.