Judge Overrules Philadelphia Branch Closings

A Philadelphia judge has ordered Mayor Michael Nutter to halt his planned closing of 11 branches of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Court of Common Pleas Judge Idee C. Fox issued the ruling December 30 in response to an emergency motion filed by three city council members who argued that the closures would violate a 1988 city ordinance requiring the mayor to obtain council approval before shutting any city-owned facility.

Cox’s order requires the branches, which were scheduled to close the last day of December, to remain open with reduced staff until city council or an appeals court decides otherwise, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported December 31. Some 40 branch library employees have already been laid off or reassigned, according to the mayor’s office.

The motion that Judge Fox ruled on was made by city councilors Bill Green, Jack Kelly, and Jannie L. Blackwell in concert with a lawsuit filed against the city December 23 by seven city residents and the local union of municipal employees. Fox heard their testimony the day before her injunction in a courtroom packed with library supporters, according to the December 30 Philadelphia Daily News.

Mayor Nutter said he would immediately appeal the ruling to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, calling it an “absolute assault” on his ability to solve the city’s financial crisis. “This has nothing to do with libraries,” Nutter told the Inquirer. “It has to do with competently running the city.” In a statement released December 30, Nutter questioned the validity of the ordinance, Section 16-203 of the Philadelphia Code, saying the city would “grind to a halt if consensus of 18 independently elected officials were required for every decision.”

Councilman Green countered by telling the newspaper, “If the mayor had involved 18 people in the decision-making process in the first place, we wouldn’t be in court.” The council had already expressed its view on Nutter’s library plan December 4 when it passed a nonbinding resolution 12–5 urging him to delay a final decision until other cost savings were explored.

At a December 29 press conference, Nutter had tried to assuage critics by announcing that he was looking into having private firms or nonprofit agencies take over at least five of the 11 facilities and operate them as knowledge centers, an argument that city attorneys later used in court to suggest that the branches would not really close. “Closed is closed,” said Fox, who insisted that only written agreements for such a use would constitute a plan.

“People love their libraries,” Irv Ackelsberg, the attorney for the seven plaintiffs in the successful lawsuit, said after the ruling. “Do they love any other city department? Why would the city, with all of its troubles, destroy the one agency that everybody loves?”

On January 5, Judge Fox refused to rescind her earlier ruling, despite last-minute arguments from city Solicitor Shelley Smith, the Associated Press reported. In her ruling she noted that the land under two branches would revert to its original owners if the libraries closed.

Nutter met January 3 with more than 75 members of the Friends of the Free Library to present his arguments, the Daily News reported January 5. “My administration wants to work in closer concert with the Friends groups,” he said, adding, “I apologize to them for not having an opportunity for having more discussion [earlier.]”

Friends Executive Director Amy Dougherty said that while library advocates have not been included in discussions on the financial crisis, the meeting with Nutter “was a different version of the same.” Dougherty said supporters would rather see the cuts spread evenly across the system.