Opinion and Forefront

MAHERN: Public library board is a Byzantine mess

July 23, 2011

Louis MahernWhat if you wanted to complain about the Indianapolis/Marion County Public Library? It is highly unlikely, but what if you had not received a satisfactory answer from the staff? To what elected official would you complain?

From 2004 to 2008, I was on the library board. As I spoke to civic groups and neighborhood organizations, I would ask, “Who appoints the library board?”

Inevitably, the answer came back, “the mayor.” After I told the audience the mayor had no appointments to the library board, they usually guessed, “the council?”

“Bingo!” I replied. “But the council appoints only two of the seven members. Who appoints the other five?” In every instance, the onlookers fell silent.

Not once did the audience ever guess the Indianapolis Public Schools Board.

Had they ventured either of the correct remaining appointing authorities, I would have asked them to name the members of the IPS board. After all, 15 percent of the audience had voted in the last IPS board election. Well, they did if they lived within the boundaries of IPS. If they lived outside IPS, they had no representation on the library board via the school board.

Until 1968, the Indianapolis Public Library fell under the jurisdiction of the IPS board. When the Legislature permitted the library to go countywide 43 years ago, it provided that the IPS board would fill two of the seven new library board slots. Those appointments remain in effect despite the fact that IPS has less than one quarter of the countywide public school enrollment.

If you can name two of the seven IPS board members who in turn appoint two members of the library board, you are among the 1 percent of the most informed citizens of Marion County.

Three other library board members are appointed by the Marion County commissioners. If you don’t recall their names from the last few elections, that is because we haven’t had county commissioners in Marion County for 40 years. We now have ex-officio county commissioners.

Ex-officio means they no longer have any of the executive or legislative powers they once enjoyed as real county commissioners two generations ago. They are designated ex-officio only to make appointments to things like the library board. Follow me so far?

For 10 points, name two ex-officio county commissioners. For a five-point toss-up, name the other offices held by the ex-officio county commissioners. Surely, you remember this from high school government class. Or perhaps you learned these things from reading that brochure the chamber of commerce passes out, “How Your Local Government Works.” Or is it called “Uni-Gov and You?”

For the Rip Van Winkles among us, the mayor of Indianapolis is now the executive branch of Indianapolis/Marion County government. The 29-member City-County Council exercises the legislative powers of Indianapolis/Marion County government.

The final two library board appointments are made by the City-County Council.

Of the three appointing authorities, the IPS board, the ex-officio county commissioners and the council, only the council has the authority to fund the library and set its budget.

The mayor then approves or vetoes the budget.

The local government entities with complete control over the finances of the library appoint only two of the seven library board members. Is there any doubt as to why the library has been a funding afterthought in recent budget deliberations?

IPS and the ex-officio county commissioners cannot raise a dime for the library. Yet they appoint five of the seven members of the library board.

There was a bill in this past session of the General Assembly to give the mayor and the City-County Council the authority to appoint the library board. It passed the House by one vote. It failed in the Senate by one vote. And so it goes.•

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Mahern has been an assistant to U.S. Rep. Andy Jacobs and U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh and served in the Indiana Senate. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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