A round-table meeting on Tuesday between all four member councils of the Richmond-Tweed Regional Library (RTRL) failed to reach agreement on how the service should be managed.
The three-hour meeting in Mullumbimby ended with Byron Shire Council at odds with the three other councils (Lismore City, Tweed and Ballina) by maintaining its push for the service to be run under the previous shared-arrangement model instead of it being managed by Lismore City Council.
The meeting was called to explore various options for an agreement to run the library service in the wake of concerns that the current draft agreement by which Lismore council manages the service is in effect a ‘takeover’, not transparent, and causing uncertainty among library staff about their futures.
Tweed and Ballina councils have given in-principle support for the current administrative model and Lismore Council will consider at its March 14 meeting adopting the draft regional library and service-level agreements under which it now has run the service for around 18 months.
Byron mayor Jan Barham said councillors from the four constituent councils did not understand the implications of the library administration being run by Lismore and it was ‘negligent’ of them not to pursue options other than the current model.
But Lismore mayor Jenny Dowell rejected that, saying four models had been previously explored and rejected and she would be ‘very happy’ for Lismore to hand over the service to another council if the administrative model was the preferred one.
‘We have no attachment to this, our staff have spent an inordinate amount of time on this,’ she said, but to hand its running back to a committee would be ‘a poisoned chalice’ and a ‘cop out’, Cr Dowell said.
But Cr Barham said Byron still wanted a shared agreement but other management options had to be properly looked into and the lack of information was ‘extremely disturbing’.
Cr Barham after the meeting said she would support a public campaign launched the previous day, supported by north coast MLC Catherine Cusack, to revive the county-council model under which the service was previously run and seek advice from relevant ministers and the state library service on the issue.
Independent facilitator of the meeting, Diana Roberts, said she was ‘disappointed but not surprised’ there had been no agreed option to run the service.
Ms Roberts later told Echonetdaily that it would be ‘a tragedy’ if Byron decided to go it alone as the library services for Byron Shire and other council regions would suffer as a result.
Ms Roberts said ‘it’s in Byron’s interest to come up with an alternative arrangement as soon as possible’ and that re-activating the former library committee, made up of councillors from the four councils, would help address some concerns.
Options discussed included a co-operative, a corporation, a charitable trust, county council model, a stand-alone service, incorporated organisation, a shared service and the current administrative model.
The library service has more than 100 staff at 12 libraries in the four shires plus a mobile library service and almost 130,000 member/users.
Martin Field, a former longtime director of the service before it was placed under Lismore’s administration under a draft five-year agreement in 2010, told the meeting the service before Lismore Council took over its management had become one of the best-performing library services in the state but under the new regime, operating costs and inefficiencies had increased.
Mr Field said a variety of options in running the service should be explored and all councils should have an equitable say in its operations.
Byron general manager Graeme Faulkner said he would recommend his council adopt the county council model as it was less ambiguous and gave community protection of library assets.
‘The safest way to move forward is to reinstate the RTRL committee and work towards a county council model,’ Mr Faulkner said.
But Ballina general manager Paul Hickey said councils could not go back to the past model as they could not ‘give any legal authority’ to the committee.
Cr Barham said it seemed ‘everyone has different information’ and ‘trust has broken down and needs rebuilding’.
Cr Dowell said it was unfortunate a lack of information had led to perceptions that service levels had dropped, and that ‘has to be fixed’ for the sake of transparency.
She said the general public was happy with the current running of the service and no complaints had been made.
Mr Faulkner said his concerns were that other member councils had ‘no control over decision making but all the liability in the world’, which is ‘totally unacceptable to ratepayers’.
Cr Tom Tabart said he would like to see is the service ‘run by a librarian not a beancounter, with strong oversight by a committee’.
After the meeting Mr Field told Echonetdaily if Lismore signed off on the draft agreement it would ‘give it the right to sell assets without consultation’.