Between the Lines: A Long, Hard Fight

To look at the final numbers, it's hard to imagine that there was ever anything to worry about: last Monday, the Springfield City Council unanimously voted to take the former Mason Square library building, at 765 State St., by eminent domain.

In fact, the outcome of Monday's meeting was a nail-biter almost to the end. Supporters of the land taking—which will return full library services to the Mason Square community six years after the neighborhood branch was sold to the Urban League—had the backing of five of the nine councilors. But that was not enough to seal the deal; the taking also involved a financial order requiring the approval of six councilors.

As the meeting approached, word spread that two councilors who had voted against the taking in earlier, non-binding votes—Bruce Stebbins and Jimmy Ferrera—were now on board. Word also spread, however, that Council President Bill Foley was contemplating invoking a rule that allows any councilor to table a vote until the city auditor can prepare a report on its financial implications. Foley had expressed concerns about what the city's financial liability would be if the Council approved a taking.

The answer, in short: none. A few weeks earlier, the Springfield Library Foundation—the non-profit that controls a fund earmarked for library services in Mason Square—had voted to pay for the taking, including paying the Urban League for the building and covering any related legal costs; the Foundation also agreed to cover most of the branch's operating expenses for three years. Those details had been reported in the media, but, lest Foley missed them, T.J. Plante, the city's director of finance, outlined them again in a memo to Foley a few days before the meeting.

As the vote neared, one more hurdle remained: organized efforts by the Urban League to hold on to the building. Urban League President Henry Thomas has said he'll fight the taking, and his supporters showed up at the meeting to make their case to the Council. Some contended that the land taking was being orchestrated by "outsiders"—an ironic charge given that the original sale was authorized by the Springfield Library and Museums Association, the private organization that ran the city library system at the time. The SLMA's board is dominated by residents of surrounding suburbs, such as Springfield Republican President David Starr, a Longmeadow resident and self-described "elder" of the SLMA.

After the vote, library backers celebrated what Kat Wright, a member of the Mason Square Library Advisory Committee, described as "a major victory for community justice." But they also took care to not gloat. "It behooves us to help [make] the Urban League's transition as positive as we can," Wright wrote to supporters the next day. "Our community needs to heal."

Indeed, it is important that the Urban League find a visible, accessible new home in Mason Square. But don't forget that the Urban League could have avoided the upheaval of a move had its leaders not chosen to knowingly displace the Mason Square library six years ago.

The secretive nature of that deal seemed a clear indication that the Urban League and the SLMA knew there would be strong community opposition (See "Springfield Libraries: A Twist in the Plot," Nov. 6, 2008). Instead, the Urban League put its own interests ahead of its neighborhood's right to a quality library and walked away with a steal, paying just $700,000 for a building that had recently undergone a $1.2 million renovation (almost half of it funded by city taxpayers). Mason Square residents, meanwhile, were robbed of one of their neighborhood's jewels. Now it's up to the Urban League to either let go of a building it never should have taken, or prolong the contentious atmosphere with a legal fight.


Author: Maureen Turner

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