Vashon residents seek bigger role in library plan

Administrators with the King County Library System, gearing up for an ambitious remodel of Vashon’s small branch library, say they’ve already learned much about the Island’s reading habits.

The fiction collection is far too small, said Donna McMillen, a library cluster manager with KCLS. The children’s section, too, could be bigger. And the heavily used large-print books probably should not occupy any bottom shelves, as they do now — since those who read large-print books often find it difficult to reach volumes close to the ground.

The analysis is one of many steps under way in an effort to ensure that Vashon’s expanded branch library meets Islanders’ needs, she said. “It’s actually quite intensive,” McMillen said of the research she and others have already begun.

“We hope to take all of these needs, capture them and put them into place,” she said.

But as KCLS gears up for a remodel — groundbreaking is still several months away — some Islanders remain concerned about the library administration’s willingness to engage Vashon residents in the process.

Members of a committee established by the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council to monitor the library expansion effort say they already feel thwarted in their effort to participate.

Bonnie de Steiguer, who chairs the committee, attended a KCLS board of trustees’ meeting last week, where she told the board that her committee plans to garner input from Islanders at a March 20 community forum, then select two or three Islanders to attend a meeting with KCLS planners where they’d present what they learned from the forum.

“We expect your team to have a dialogue with us about issues important to the community,” de Steiguer told the board.

But Bill Ptacek, the library system’s top executive, said no to the Vashon proposal, noting that the library administration has another process for community engagement in the works. As a result, de Steiguer said, her committee will likely postpone that public forum — at least for now.

“I don’t want to go to all that work and just have it be more paper for my file,” de Steiguer said.

She and her colleagues, she added, are frustrated by Ptacek’s response.

“We just wanted an actual dialogue where people talk to each other and listen to each other,” she said. “We feel that’s always missing in our dealings with KCLS.”

KCLS administrators see the situation differently. An open house will be held in April, the first of two, where KCLS and its architects will put forward a couple of conceptual plans that Islanders will be able to weigh in on. The Vashon branch was also just assigned to the cluster overseen by McMillen, a seasoned library administrator who played a role in the Federal Way branch expansion project.

“I feel Vashon residents are involved in the process, and they have been to one degree or another since we started this process in 2005,” said Kay Johnson, KCLS’s facilities director.

“We’ve had a pretty open phone line and e-mail, and now they have a senior level staff member assigned to work with them,” she added. “I think they’ve been allowed to participate quite vigorously.”

The Vashon Library is slated to undergo a wholesale remodel, where the 6,000-square-foot branch at Ober Park will be remade into a 10,000-square-foot facility. The funds for the expanded branch come from a bond measure county residents passed in 2004.

But the process has been fraught with controversy virtually from the get-go. First, there were conflicts between KCLS administrators and the Vashon Park District, which owns the land the branch sits on. After a long stalemate, KCLS announced last year that it was moving the branch to the K2 complex a mile down the road, a decision that triggered an outcry from residents who wanted to see the branch stay in town and adjacent to a popular park.

Now, some Islanders say, they want KCLS to open up the planning process, so that they can play an active role in shaping not only the new library’s look but also the way it functions. Will there be more computers than now exist in the branch? How will the meeting rooms be configured? Will there be lots of glass or not?

Jean Bosch, president of the community council, said Ptacek’s recent decision to not let Islanders come to the table with his planning team is unfortunate.

“It’s a terrible waste of community willingness to help,” she said. “We have a huge resource to offer. Not only is it our loss that they don’t seem to want to listen. It’s their loss, as well.”

The conflicts underscore what some see as a fundamental issue with the way the King County Library System functions. Unlike the Seattle City Library, which is a part of the city’s budgeting process, KCLS is its own taxing district and in many ways acts as an entirely autonomous entity. Its trustees are tapped by the King County executive and confirmed by the county council, a process that seldom stirs much discussion. Beyond that, the county has no control over the way it operates.

As a result, some say, Ptacek, who reports only to his board, has considerable free rein in how he operates the library system, a $90 million operation.

De Steiguer recently met with King County Councilmember Jan Drago, who represents Vashon, to discuss this situation with her and the need for better county oversight. The meeting lasted 45 minutes, much longer than de Steiguer had anticipated; Drago’s policy director sat in on the meeting, taking copious notes, de Steiguer said.

Drago could not be reached for comment.

De Steiguer, a Spanish teacher who’s poured untold hours into the library, said the process matters to her because this is the Island’s chance to shape a branch that will be a part of the fabric of the community for decades to come. She recently visited the county library in Covington and was amazed to see it held two large vending machines, displacing shelf space for books.

“I’m assuming we can say we don’t want vending machines, and they’ll listen,” she said. But she fears the community is being closed out of other decisions.

“All of us on the committee feel it would be good for us to be involved in the early stages, so that the designs that we get are the designs we really want,” she said.

For her part, McMillen, a veteran of community processes, said she believes Islanders will be able to participate early enough in the process to play a meaningful role.

Next month’s public meeting will not be a sit-down affair, where library officials talk to the audience — but, rather, an open house, where people can walk around, look at conceptual designs, talk to library staff and comment freely. They can discuss the size of the children’s area, the number of computers, the placement of windows, she said.

“Anything the public says ... when the staff are planning and incorporating those ideas, all of that is in their minds,” she said.

“We want to make sure there’s an open process,” she said.

Vashon library committee to meet

The next meeting of Vashon’s library committee is 7 p.m. Thursday at the Vashon Library meeting room. The committee, a part of Vashon’s community council, is open to all Islanders.

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