Late during yesterday’s epic Ballina Shire Council meeting, there was an intense discussion over the present and future of libraries in the region, brought on by the controversial closure of all local libraries, apart from Click and Collect, by the Richmond Tweed Regional Library.
The first part of Cr Phil Meehan’s motion called for a report on options to give Ballina Council more control over the Ballina, Lennox Head and Alstonville libraries, which are currently run from Lismore as part of the wider RTRL network. The second part of his motion looked at separating off the libraries in Ballina Shire and running them as a standalone service.
Cr Meehan said, ‘I think that it’s very important for us to demonstrate to our community that we see the library as one of the major faces of council. We recognize the importance of the service. And we also recognize the very large volume of money that we put towards the Richmond Tweed Regional Library each year [$1.55m].
‘We need to review the value for money and the mode of operation that we’re receiving back,’ he said.
Although council staff are already in the midst of a review into library operations, Cr Meehan’s motion was prompted by widespread anger in the community at the return of local libraries to a Click and Collect service so soon after coming out of lockdown, prompted by eight attacks on library staff policing vax status in Tweed and Byron regional libraries.
Cr Meehan said he recently had a conversation with an 87 year old woman (a regular library user from Ballina) who was dumbfounded at the news that her normal library service would not be resuming until December. She had no smartphone and was therefore ‘severed from the opportunities of using the library’.
He said that it appeared no risk assessment had been done in Ballina before closing all libraries to public access across the region, despite no evidence of aggressive behaviour at other council facilities locally, including the Ballina Visitor Centre, right next to Ballina Library, open and operating under normal COVID precautions.
‘It should have been discussed with our senior management,’ he said, with the focus of the discussion, ‘how can we keep our libraries open? How can we work together to do that? I’m not happy with the current situation.’
Mayor says Ballina can do it all
Mayor David Wright said he had been trying to get some autonomy for the Ballina Shire Libraries for ten years, saying it was ridiculous that the whole service was run from Lismore. ‘If we can run an airport we can run libraries,’ he said.
Cr Jeff Johnson asked how the funding broke down, and was told by Ballina Council staff member (Director Corporate and Community Division) Kelly Brown that about a million dollars each year went on wages, with the rest going on other library costs. Because the network acts as one giant library, there were benefits to users being able to borrow anything from any library, although items were ultimately ‘owned’ by home libraries.
Jeff Johnson moved an amendment to drop the second part of the motion about separating from the wider library service. ‘I think there’s a lot of benefits in keeping in that regional model,’ he said. While acknowledging residents’ concerns about the current COVID situation, he said the withdrawal of any member council from the RTRL ‘could probably cause the whole Regional Library model to fall apart.’
Cr Sharon Cadwallader said the motion and the amendment were both unnecessary, noting it had taken 40 years to get any agreement between the constituent councils.
While there were problems emerging with centralised control from Lismore, she said the existing staff review was examining those and should be allowed to finish its work, with a report due in February.
She said it would be ‘jumping the gun’ for Ballina Council to act in advance of that.
‘This is a big ticket item,’ said Cr Cadwallader. ‘It’s very important to a lot of people. I’m not happy that we were dictated to that the libraries were closed… And yes, I’ve had a lot of feedback about that as well. But what we have to do is work with the staff on this, knowing that it’s in capable hands, and wait for that report.’
Staff member Kelly Brown confirmed that a senior leadership group were at work on the issue. ‘The recent situation with closing the libraries is an example where we communicated quite strongly that we didn’t want the libraries to close and we didn’t want the Click and Collect service.
‘But it was very clearly communicated to us that the staff are employed by Lismore City Council, and that wasn’t our call,’ said Ms Brown. ‘So for us, we want to make sure that we can have some control of the libraries and deliver the services that our community needs. Recognizing that our community has grown a lot since it was originally established, and it’s continuing to grow.’
Ballina spitting the dummy?
Cr Keith Williams spoke strongly against the idea of Ballina Council going it alone with its libraries. ‘It feels like the last few months on this council, we have been so down on our regional partnerships. Every time we get a decision that we don’t like, we want to spit the dummy and walk away,’ he said.
‘We had comments about Rous a couple of months ago. Now we’re saying let’s dump Richmond Tweed Regional library because we don’t like this decision they made. I really don’t like this tone in the debate. And I don’t like the fact that the debate started from that point…
‘I’m happy to talk about that issue. But the talk about dumping regional arrangements that have been in place for nearly fifty years because we don’t like a decision is really poor in my view… We’re part of a region, and we work with our neighbours for a reason,’ said Cr Williams.
Outgoing Cr Sharon Parry agreed, saying talk of leaving the library network reminded her of Ballina’s decision to leave Northern Rivers Arts earlier in the year. ‘It just wiped out regional partners,’ she said. ‘There are benefits to some extent in having more autonomy, but there are also benefits in supporting our broader region.’
After some more argy-bargy, Cr Phil Meehan agreed to drop the second part of the motion, about going it alone, saying his aim was ‘to achieve some harmony and cooperation on this matter’.
The modified motion (to examine greater autonomy for Ballina Council over the library, without separating from RTLS), was carried unanimously.
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