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The great Vashon Island library war

A Vashon scene Credit: Vashon Park District

A lot of Vashon Island residents have felt besieged this year, and not just by the economy: The state ferry system, strapped for cash, contemplated drastically jacking fares and slashing service. Glacier Northwest started to replace an old dock at the edge of Maury Island with a new one that will enable it to develop what a local protest group calls “the largest gravel mine in the United States in the middle of Puget Sound.” And the King County Library System may replace the current library, in the unincorporated town of Vashon, with a new one a mile down the highway on the site of the abandoned K-2 ski factory.

Some people think a library move would be just fine, but most (80 percent) of those who responded to a recent Community Council survey, mailed out to registered voters by King County Councilman Dow Constantine think the library should stay in town, and most think the K-2 site would be bad. The survey just confirmed the sentiment expressed by most of the crowd that greeted KCLS director Bill Ptacek and his colleagues at a Vashon meeting earlier this year, and four hours of Vashon testimony inflicted on the library board during a recent meeting at KCLS headquarters in Issaquah.

The current library stands in a park, back from the highway, across the grass from the island’s largest children’s play area. The new site would be K-2’s old machine shop, a late-1940s cinder block building with underground oil storage tanks that juts out into the highway right-of-way. The shop stands just northeast of the main K-2 factory, a huge manufacturing facility that seems anomalous on Vashon, where the largest employers these days are the school district and Thriftway. Anomalous or not, K-2 started on Vashon, and ten years ago, 700 people worked there.

Those jobs are long gone, and the old factory building has stood vacant for years. Private developers have a grand — some think grandiose — scheme for its re-use. Last fall, Constantine got the property rezoned from Industrial to Community Business, without going through the normal rezone process. Some community members who were neither stupid nor self-interested clearly supported the rezone; many liked the idea of turning an industrial eyesore into a community asset. But, many other residents didn’t support it; they feared K-2 development would kill downtown retail, and would make a mockery of community planning. Some eyebrows were raised over the fact that four of the hosts for Constantine’s recent Vashon fundraiser were the K-2 developers and their wives.

Some people see the expanse of unused parking space at the K-2 site as a reason to put the library there; they figure pedestrian access is irrelevant, since most people drive to the current site, anyway. But others told the library board in Issaquah that they walked regularly with young kids between the current library and the playground, and invited board members to try walking along the highway shoulder as cars whizzed by.

Of course, abundant free parking has helped make America a land of malls and sprawl. The state Growth Management Act, which is supposed to prevent rural sprawl, and everyone’s current lip-service to halting climate change, which would require driving less, both suggest that public facilities should be accessible to pedestrians — whether or not they choose to walk. The King County Comprehensive Plan says: “Rural towns should be compact, promoting pedestrian and non-motorized travel . . . New development should . . . strengthen the desirable characteristics and historic character of the town.”

Before the library system started negotiating with the would-be K-2 redevelopers, it negotiated with the Vashon Park District, which owns the land on which the current library stands, about putting a larger building on or near the site. Those earlier negotiations broke down. The local Vashon Beachcomber has explained, “the park board wrote that, since ‘it disapproves of a remodel of the existing library building,’ it would not give the library system a long-term lease at Ober Park.”

”We spent $120,000 doing master planning of the park site and then they pulled the plug on us,” Ptacek says. The park district chair “came to the library board in a kind of confrontational way,” he says. “They were playing hardball.”

Park commissioners subsequently claimed that the library system had given them little choice. According to the Beachcomber: ”’The 2007 resolution was made because [library officials] came to us with a “take it or leave it” plan, a remodel of the library that would gain less than 2,000 square feet over the currently library — for more than $4 million,’ said David Hackett, a park board member. The library system’s plan had little consideration for Ober Park’s green space, he added, and ‘would rip apart the park.'” Earlier this year, at the packed public meeting, a longtime park commissioner pointed at Ptacek and said “that man” was personally responsible for torpedoing the talks.

“I’ve never seen anybody be so rude to someone at a public meeting,” an opponent of the library move said afterward. Nevertheless, the idea that the library system in general and Ptacek in particular are insensitive to local ideas and desires isn’t new. Libraries don’t generally provoke much controversy, unless a mob with torches and pitchforks wants sinful books removed from the shelves. The current management of King County’s system certainly makes the trains run on time. “The system works,” Ptacek says. Indeed, it does. That’s all most patrons care about, and except for the odd newsworthy incident, that seems to be all the press cares about, too.

One of those incidents arose in 2006, when the Seattle Times ran an editorial entitled “Save the King Co. Library System.” The Times noted that library employees had recently “voted overwhelmingly (92 percent of those voting) that they had no confidence in longtime director Bill Ptacek’s management. Calls for his ouster center on his management style and a controversial reorganization of library staff. In May 2006, 80 library workers and patrons demonstrated before a trustees meeting, carrying signs that read, ‘No confidence,’ and ‘Low morale = loss of service.’”

Library Journal covered the situation that June, noting “as for the [local Friends of the Library] groups, nearly 20 of which have expressed dismay with library management, ‘I guess we’ve got to rebuild relationships with some of those folks,’ [Ptacek] said.”

The year before, Library Journal reported that after the library system passed a 2004 countywide bond issue, “Will Knedlik, a former state legislator and perennial anti-tax protestor who opposed the bond, protested to the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) that KCLS Director Bill Ptacek illegally used public funds to promote the bond rather than simply provide information. The PDC concluded that Ptacek was at fault, but ultimately declined to fine the library, because a court injunction . . . prevented the agency from providing guidance to the library before it began its public information campaign. KCLS contends that the PDC report is inaccurate, and Ptacek says library officials don’t feel they acted inappropriately.”

The capital plan for that 2004 bond issue — although not the ballot measure itself or the voters’ pamphlet description — included a 10,000-square-foot library on Vashon. The original idea was to put up a new, larger building on or near the current site. But, as Ptacek explains it, the housing bubble was inflating construction costs by leaps and bounds, and it soon became clear that the library system couldn’t afford a new building. It could have expanded the current building, but then the Park District said it would not renew the library system’s lease. You can’t spend public money to improve a site you may not be able to occupy for 20 years, so the library system went looking for another building to remodel. It found the old K-2 machine shop. The park board now says it wants the library to stay, after all, but even now, Ptacek says, the park district is “kind of hard to pin down.”

“They’re saying that to everybody,” complains park board chair Mike Collins. “We’ve told them without reservation that we’ll give them the land,” but “they have given us no details,” so “we have nothing to respond to.”

Ptacek himself has become the symbolic bad guy, criticized as arrogant and indifferent. But he has fans, as well as critics. When Library Journal reported his troubles with the PDC, the magazine’s editor wrote that under Ptacek, “KCLS has become one of the great library systems in America, the greatest by a number of measures, especially for strong community leadership.” He suggested it was.”important to remember that while the disputed brochures and videos from KCLS may have helped inform voters [about the bond issue], it was obviously innovative, exceptional library service that carried the day. A great library run by a great librarian won that election.”

Nevertheless, library advocates throughout King County still complain that the KCLS ignores the views and wishes of people out there in the communities. A 2007 paper submitted to a subcommittee of the King County Charter Review Commission reported that the commission “has been asked to consider recommending one or more charter amendments that would address what critics view as weaknesses in the KCLS governance structure. Proponents of these amendments believe that KCLS leadership needs to be more responsive and accountable to the public that it serves.”

The governance hasn’t changed. By state law, the library system is an independent entity. Trustees are nominated by the County Executive and appointed by but not responsible to the County Council. The director is appointed by the trustees. Neither the people nor their elected representatives have any direct recourse .

This system was established in 1942, when the goal was getting library service to residents of rural areas. On one hand, Ptacek suggests that its independence of local government constitutes a major advantage. Libraries don’t have to compete for money with police or fire protection On the other, neither its mandate nor its structure equips — much less forces — it to deal well with a basically political situation.

And because KCLS is a countywide system, Ptacek says, he and the library board must decide what’s best for the whole, not for any individual community. The two may coincide. Or they may not. This evidently extends to design considerations. “They build Cadillac buildings,” Collins complains, but “we don’t need that” on Vashon.

In this case, “we went to the voters in 2004 with a plan,” and “they voted the money.” That vote didn’t tie a larger library to any specific location, of course, and people weren’t asked to balance location against size More recently, Ptacek got a clear message about location from that big Vashon crowd, but he wondered who hadn’t showed up. Faced with a large group’s “vociferous” advocacy of one position, “you’re not likely to come out of the woodwork to be opposed to it.”

Now, for what’s it’s worth, he has the survey. Only 28 percent of the population responded, and some registered voters, inexplicably, didn’t receive ballots in the mail, but low turnouts are the rule, rather than the exception, in this country; they don’t invalidate election results. With the surveys counted, what Vashon or some portion of it wants seems clear. It remains to be seen whether or not anybody cares.

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