Whitefish Library Talks Turn Bitter

By Beacon Staff

In an increasingly bitter divorce, the Flathead County Library System and supporters of an independent Whitefish library are still at odds over ownership of books and other assets after months of discussions.

And judging by recent events and comments, the situation seems unlikely to reach a harmonious conclusion before July 1, when the Whitefish Community Library officially begins operating as an independent entity. As with many other divorces, it boils down to who gets what.

In April, the county library system began assessing and removing books from the Whitefish library. Then from June 18 to June 30, the county plans to shut down the library to remove the rest of its assets, including valuables like computers and check-out equipment. The assets will be distributed to the county’s branches in Marion, Bigfork, Columbia Falls and the main branch in Kalispell.

Whitefish city officials and independent library supporters adamantly oppose the shutdown.

“We want to avoid any shutdown of the library,” Whitefish City Manager Chuck Stearns said.

Meanwhile, a group representing Whitefish in the asset distribution talks is pleading its case to the Flathead County Commission. Michael Collins, chairman of the Whitefish Community Library board of trustees, expected the meeting with commissioners to take place on Monday.

Collins said there are large discrepancies in the two sides’ interpretations of official documents and rightful ownership.

“Quite honestly, I think we should be able to solve this amicably and get on down the road,” Collins said. “Why do we have to go get our lawyers to talk to their lawyers about what the documents say? Isn’t there an easier way?”

At issue are the roughly 35,000 books, CDs, DVDs and other assets held within the Whitefish library’s collection. This has been a point of contention since October when the Whitefish City Council voted to break away from the county system and form an independent library.

County library board trustees say they made it clear before Whitefish decided to part ways that the assets belong to the county system. The city of Whitefish owns the building.

“Then Whitefish representatives started saying, ‘Well, we have the right to all of this collection or a big part of this collection,’” Flathead County Library trustee Connie Leistiko said.

Leistiko said the county trustees’ intentions, contrary to what recent letters to the editor have stated, are not to remove every single item from the facility. Leistiko and fellow county trustee Laura Long have been representing the county library in discussions with the city.

An April letter to the editor from former county library trustee Jerry Hanson, who was active in establishing the independent library, critically addressed each current trustee and library director Kim Crowley by name, calling them “small-minded” and proclaiming “outrage.” Hanson wrote that Leistiko is “adamant that Whitefish keeps nothing.”

“She wants to strip the Whitefish shelves bare and teach Whitefish a lesson,” he wrote.

In regards to Long, Hanson wrote that “she supposedly represents the Bigfork community – except no one in Bigfork seems to even know who she is. She’s certainly not one of the recognizable movers and shakers of that community.”

Long called the letters “very angry” and Leistiko said some have amounted to personal attacks.

“I’m not the horrible person they portray in these letters,” she said. “We’re volunteers and we’re all just trying to do our jobs.”

Leistiko said the trustees have offered a proposal permitting the Whitefish Community Library to keep a number of assets. Among the items identified are donated gift and memorial books that have stickers identifying them as such. The city also owns furniture in the facility.

“It’s never been any of this, ‘We want to give you nothing,’” Leistiko said. “That’s not true. I don’t know where they’ve been getting that, but it’s just not factual.”

Long said the county library system is the rightful owner of the whole collection and is doing the city a favor by leaving those books in the facility.

“We’re very happy to let the new library have them but we don’t feel they have any right to them,” Long said.

The Whitefish Community Library board of trustees has outlined its own distribution plan, with a general emphasis on leaving all of the books in place. One part of the proposal states that since the Whitefish library also serves county residents, the books should be left in exchange for the services provided to county residents.

If the Whitefish Community Library ceases to exist, the county can have the books back, Collins said.

“I think they’re just generally unhappy that we separated,” Collins said. “Their actions to date suggest they don’t really want to be cooperative or to make this an easy transition. That’s kind of discouraging.”

Former trustee Marge Fisher wrote a letter to the editor arguing that the library’s “materials belong to the Whitefish area taxpayers.” Fisher cited the original 1976 interlocal agreement. She also said materials since then have been purchased by Whitefish groups and taxpayers.

“(The agreement) stated if Whitefish reverted to a city library,” Fisher wrote, “all materials would be retained by the city and were only leased and loaned to the county.”

Leistiko said subsequent interlocal agreements, most recently in 2001, have superseded the original agreement.

“As far as we’re concerned, the 1976 agreement is irrelevant,” Leistiko said. “It’s been invalidated by subsequent agreements.”

The ongoing squabble has forced the county library system to cancel one of its premier annual events, the Big Read, Leistiko said. It remains to be seen what role the Flathead County commissioners might play in solving the matter, though Leistiko said her board is statutory.

“We have exclusive control over spending the public funds designated for the library,” Leistiko said. “We buy and sell personal property and dispose of personal property as is in the best interest of the library.”

If a compromise can’t be reached, Collins said his board may have to look at its legal options.

“I don’t want to speculate,” Collins said, “but certainly you look at, ‘Do you go after them legally?’ You have to think, ‘What’s fair? Who gets what?’”

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