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Groups that have long been using meeting rooms after hours at Lancaster County libraries will likely have to change their meeting times or find a new place to gather next year due to a pending policy change regarding those rooms’ hours of availability.
Meeting rooms at the Lancaster County main library in Lancaster and the Del Webb Library in Indian are home to meetings and other functions for a variety of local organizations ranging from political clubs and advocacy groups to nonprofits and homeowner associations.
The groups have been allowed to use the libraries’ facilities free of charge for years, even after hours.
A proposed policy change the Lancaster County Library Board will consider, Monday evening, Sept. 23, would do away with after-hours use by outside groups and significantly curtail daytime availability in deference to the library’s use of the rooms.
The pending policy change came to light last week when Indian Land resident Barbara Bartos sought information about next year’s calendar for her local birding group.
“I said, ‘Wow, that’s huge,’” Bartos said, recounting her conversation with County Library Director Rita Vogel. “I said are you aware of all the civic groups that use it? And she said, ‘Yes.’
“I’ll figure out what to do with my group one way or another,” Bartos said. “The reason I’m raising awareness is because most of these other civic groups are much more important; the information these groups have to share with the community is very important.”
The exact number of groups meeting at the Lancaster main library after hours during the week and weekends was not available by press time, though it is booked several nights a week and on weekends. The main library, 313 S. Market St., is open until 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
The change would impact groups which use the Del Webb Library. The Del Webb Library’s meeting room is even specifically designed for the use with a separate entrance and access to public restrooms in the main foyer, which is sealed off from the rest of the library after hours by a metal gate.
According to library officials, 18 groups have used that library meeting room after hours this year, including 13 on a regular-monthly basis.
Under the existing policy, approved groups with reserved time slots are allowed use of the room until 9 p.m. The groups must agree to a list of rules and approved uses, check out a key on meeting days and return it after locking up.
The new policy would require outside groups to wrap up meetings 15 minutes before closing. That would eliminate most evening meetings since the library closes at 8 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays. It closes at 6 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays and 5 p.m. on Friday.
Groups which now use the Del Webb meeting room after hours would be allowed to continue as usual until Jan. 1.
One of those groups is the Indian Land Action Council.
Pat Eudy, its president, said while there are a few places in Indian Land where community groups could meet, those places charge a fee.
Such costs, Eudy said, affects many smaller groups such as the Hi Kee board. Hi Kee, she said, would be forced to spend its money to rent a meeting place, instead of using that money to support a local character-building summer day camp for children. Eudy serves on the Hi-Kee board.
Like Bartos, Eudy said she believes the Del Webb Library meeting room offers a valuable service to Panhandle residents by providing a place to disseminate information that impacts the community.
“I think it’s terrible,” Eudy said. “It’s a valuable service and the Indian Land Action Council has done a lot for the library, given them money and advertised for them on the digital sign (on U.S. 521) time after time. That’s big bucks if they had to pay for it.
“It would be a big burden for us, and our guest speakers especially, to meet during the day – planning commission members, County Council members, speakers coming from Columbia. People have jobs and this would prevent them from coming,” she said. “It’s just sad.”
Despite reports, the decision to alter the after-hours use policy was not made in compliance with new coverage requirements by the county’s liability insurance carrier, said Lancaster County Administrator Steve Willis.
Vogel, who began serving as county library director in June, said she was “positively astounded” to learn the library allowed outside groups to use the facility after hours and called it a “rare exception” among most libraries.
She said she decided then to pursue a change in the policy due to risk management concerns and took her concerns to board members in July. They agreed, she said.
“For me, it’s a risk concern,” Vogel said. “It just doesn’t make sense to have a public building open when there’s no personnel on hand.
“I took risk management classes offered by the county through the state, and they said just because something hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it won’t,” she said. “I just feel that in our best interest to protect the library, onsite meetings should not be allowed after our operating hours.”
Vogel said though she learned of two state library systems that charged use fees to make meeting facilities available for outside groups, it was not something she was willing to consider since the library was already short-staffed.
She said she understood the change would not be popular and didn’t want to anger group members, but she had to think of the library first.
“I just don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that they hold their meetings during operating hours and work around the library’s schedule,” Vogel said. “I am more than happy to hear folks feelings about this, but I do ask them to look at it from my point of view.
“It is my job to protect the library and serve the public, but I have to consider what is best for the greater number,” she said. “If anything happens, who’s going to take ownership of that?”
Vogel said library board members agreed with her assessment again at last month’s meeting. They also directed her to write a formal policy before the matter is voted on Monday.
Library Board Chairman Eric Crawford said its members reviewed the proposal at the August meeting and decided the current meeting room policy needed to change.
He said the biggest concerns were potential negligence and building security, along with safety for those who use it.
Crawford said the board considered possible alternatives, such as providing a staff member to accommodate after-hours meetings, electronic surveillance and hiring law enforcement for late-night meetings, but the costs were prohibitive with the current budget.
Crawford invited the community to attend Monday’s library board meeting to express their thoughts on the matter, and said its members are “always up to suggestions.” But for now, he said, the board is simply “trying to protect what we have and keep it standing.”
The meeting is 6:30 p.m. Monday at the main branch, (313 S. White St.).
“Looking at this, revamping the old policy to the new policy, is for protection, not to hinder any group meetings,” Crawford said. “I wish we lived in a world that there was not such a question of safety, but there is.
“Therefore, we want to protect the patrons of the library the best way we can,” he said. “We thought that by doing this, it would decrease the liability and increase safety.”
Bartos said none of the groups which use the Del Webb Library meeting room was given notice of the pending changes until it was too late. She said library officials would have served themselves and groups better if they’d have let someone know.
“There’s not an infinite number, how hard would it be to contact these groups?” Bartos asked. “Because they didn’t tell us this was coming, there was no opportunity for discussion, no way to find a potential resolution.
“If liability is the issue, there’s waivers. Tell us what the cost would be and figure out how to split it between 18 groups,” she said. “If they had notified people they needed to make this decision, maybe we could have helped.”
Bartos has written County Council members for help and plans to attend the meeting. She doubts if anything in the proposal will change with County Council’s willingness to provide additional funding that keeps the current policy in place.
She said she believes the situation is just another example of Lancaster County officials catering to a new growing population without providing services for those who already live and pay taxes here.
And she hates to see that attitude impact vital community assets such as library meeting rooms.
“Here’s a valuable service and it’s being severely reduced,” Bartos said. “Libraries are meant to be a hub for information of all sorts, that’s what libraries are.
“I’ve never seen a library that didn’t respond to a need for public meeting space,” she said. “It’s important to the community and I think everybody who uses that room agrees.”
For details about Monday’s meeting of the Lancaster County Library Board, call (803) 285-1502.
Contact reporter Reece Murphy at (803) 283-1151