Today, the Council voted to abolish the Minneapolis Public Library System and merge it with the Hennepin County system. I was the one Council Member to vote against this. Given the unanimous votes of the Library Board and Hennepin County Board, I am the only person in local government to vote against this, and I thought I should explain my vote.
I don't talk about this very often, but there is a list of principles that I look towards when I'm faced with a difficult decision. This list is the ten key values of the Green Party. When I examined this proposed merger against these core political principles that guide me, two of them seemed especially germane: grassroots democracy and decentralization.
Decentralization demands that power and decisionmaking (political, social and economic) are in more hands, not fewer. Centralization always, always promises efficiency, whether the efficiency of a totalitarian state or a multinational corporation. This efficiency is often a mirage, but even when it exists it is outweighed by the effects of the disempowerment inherent in centralization. This library merger is clearly a centralization of power and decisionmaking. It will mean that those most affected by the decisions about the libraires will be less empowered to influence those decisions.
Grassroots democracy demands that decisions be made as close as possible to those who are affected by them. The Library Board, which will cease to be on January 1, 2008, brought decisions about the library system much, much closer to Minneapolis voters than when the library system is one small part of a massive Hennepin County government.
More importantly, the way that this decision has been made has been less democratic than I believe it should have been. When the library system needed more money for a new central library, they went to the voters (and received two-thirds support). When there was a proposal to use Instant Runoff Voting as our election method, we went to the voters (and received 65% support). This action of removing 6 elected officials and tranferring our libraries (jobs, land, buildings, books and all) is arguably much more significant than either of these decisions - it is a major structural change to library governance, which by our Charter would require a unanimous vote of Council or positive vote of the public - but its advocates worked hard to avoid going to the voters, getting around this requirement by an action of the Legislature.
I recognize that this merger will have many salutory effects. The Southeast Library, which serves the two southeast neighborhoods in the Second Ward, will reopen. Minneapolis libraries, which serve a regional need, will receive regional support. The seemingly intractable budget problems will be alleviated. These are concrete and important pluses to this deal.
However, even with this list of positives, I can't in good consience vote to remove a grassroots level of public decisionmaking and centralize power further away from residents without a public vote.
These concerns also lead me to oppose the push from many of my colleagues to abolish the Board of Estimate and Taxation by unanimous vote of Council. This also represents a substantive change to our Charter and is most appropriately a decision that should be made by the voters, not the Council and note the state legislature.