Public Watchdog.org

It Really Is The Principle, Not The Money: Redux

10.03.13

We’ve previously published posts (on 08.12.13 and 09.18.13) about how government can be bad in principle, even if the financial consequences are relatively modest – echoing the Biblical teaching (Luke 19:17) that people who cannot handle little matters should not be trusted with bigger matters.

That’s why a story in this week’s Park Ridge Herald-Advocate’s on-line version caught our attention.  It’s about the Park Ridge Library, for which this blog’s owner/editor has been a trustee since his appointment in 2011 – over former mayor Howard Frimark’s vehement objections, and despite Frimark’s insistence that the City assess a $500,000 fine against that owner/editor for displaying a stylized version of the City flag on the blog’s banner.

Titled “Park Ridge Library Board vote saves Food for Fines – this year,” the H-A article provided little worthwhile information beyond the title, the vote totals on the Food for Fines (“FFF”) resolution (4 to continue, 4 to stop; tie goes to continuing), and the identities of who voted how (to continue: Benka, Ebling, Harrison & Schmidt; to stop: Foss-Eggeman, Hynous, Trizna & White).  Then again, the reporter wasn’t at the meeting to hear the discussion, so it’s no surprise that the core issues that fueled the discussion and informed the vote are basically ignored.

Issues such as how and why the Library ever started such a program that effectively has been stealing money from the Library (and, therefore, Park Ridge taxpayers) for years?  No real explanation of how and why has been given to the Board members, which suggests the program probably originated as one of those sounded-good-at-the-time ideas for spending OPM (“Other People’s Money”) on somebody’s favorite charity, which a past Library Board just mindlessly rubber-stamped.

Kind of like how, for many years, the City Council mindlessly rubber-stamped arbitrary donations of hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money to private “community group” corporations to spend however they chose, without any transparency or accountability to the taxpayers.

The H-A article also ignores how much the FFF program costs the Library and, therefore, the taxpayers.  No hard numbers were presented to the Board on that point, either.  But considering that the Library collects roughly $80,000 in fines annually, the one-month holiday-season Food for Fines program probably costs the Library/taxpayers around $7,000 in cancelled fines; and the 2-week program this past Spring cost around $3,500.

Those aren’t boxcar numbers, to be sure.  But it’s disingenuous, at best, to make charitable donations with public monies when Library staff and certain Board members whine and moan about how the City Council isn’t giving the Library enough money.

The H-A story also fails to give the reasons why four Library Board members insisted on keeping FFF going for at least another year, which included: (a) it’s been done for all these years; (b) the Maine Twp. food pantry (part of Maine Twp. government, like the MTEMP that wanted a free used SUV from the City) is counting on the FFF money; and (c) there’s too little time before the upcoming holiday season FFF to let Library patrons know that they can’t discharge each dollar of fines with one “food item.”

Had the H-A reporter attended the meeting, or even listened to the audio recording of it, perhaps she might have understood (and, therefore, reported) that the main objections to the FFF program were far less about the money going to a food pantry “that does not exclusively assist Park Ridge taxpayers” than they were about the Library not being legally authorized to “donate” funds that should be devoted to Library purposes; and that such donations are so far afield from legitimate Library purposes that they breach the public trust attaching to those public funds given away.

What may be the most interesting omission from the H-A story, however, is its failure to report that: (a) the Board members who voted to stop the FFF program proposed that the Library nevertheless collect food and monetary contributions for the Maine Twp. food pantry (albeit without credit against fines owed) during the scheduled FFF period; and (b) that those Board members who wanted to continue throwing taxpayer money into the food pantry basket did not support the alternative proposal.

We understand how spending OPM can be fun.  But as we consistently have argued, local public officials and employees breach their public trust when they give away the taxpayers’ money for reasons unrelated to the essential purpose of the governmental unit they manage or serve.

And in so doing, they demean the voluntarism, generosity and public spiritedness of the very taxpayers whose money they are giving away.

To read or post comments, click on title.

17 comments so far

Interesting perspective.

Here is a different one. Mission statement of the Library is as follows:

The mission of the Park Ridge Public Library is to provide the community with access to information, recreation and enlightenment by promoting materials, programs and services.

Isn’t the Food for Fines part of promoting information about the needs of people who don’t have enough money to eat?

Isn’t having a food drive a service of the Library? The Library clearly states that it promotes ‘programs and services’. The food drive is the program. Getting food to those in need is the service. The motivation to get people to donate food is by lessing the fine burden.

Seems to me that the Libary was fulfilling its Mission statement.

If you are going to have a broad generic Mission statement, then you can see how the FFF program would fit in.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The only “Mission Statement” we’re aware of is:

“The purpose of the Park Ridge Public Library is to advance human knowledge and understanding by providing access to information, literature, technology, and the arts relevant to the community it serves.”

But by your “reasoning” the Library could serve its informational mission by simply collecting food WITHOUT forgiving the fines. Why doesn’t that work for you?

I believe the Food for Fine Program qualifies because of how generic the Mission Statement of the Park Ridge Library is defined.

I don’t think that the Library is spending other people’s money when they are fulfilling the Mission of the organization by promoting a ‘program and service’ known as “Food for Fines”.

Maybe the Mission Statement should be more specific!!!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Maybe, although it might help if there weren’t at least two of them floating around out there – including the one we previously quoted in the City’s 2011-12 budget document (http://www.parkridge.us/assets/1/Documents/2-12-11%20Library.pdf), the Library’s “LibraryThing page (http://www.librarything.com/venue/35283/Park-Ridge-Public-Library) and its grant application (http://www.pages.drexel.edu/~jts67/eport/eportimages/grantproposal.pdf).

But by your tortured “reasoning” the Library ‘s “mission” could be promoting a “program and service” known as “Aid to Somalian Rebels” that informs Park Ridge residents about the needs of Islamic extremists who don’t have enough money for bullets and bombs.

Bob, as you know I voted against pulling the plug on the program immediately. I also said I’d be open to discussing and reevaluating the FFF again after this year’s program, which I am. And it’s not that I’m opposed to the “alternate proposal,” it’s just that I felt that canceling this year’s plan would have been too abrupt for staff and the public who are anticipating it.

In the meantime, I will maintain that I don’t think the library is “giving away the taxpayers’ money.” We have no way of knowing if those who donate food would ever pay their fines in cash. And accusing the Trustees who voted against the measure at this time of “breaching their public trust” is extremely harsh.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Audra: If not for FFF program, the Library would be entitled to (and presumably would) receive approx. $7,000 of fines. By choosing to forego that revenue and, instead, accept food items for donation to the Maine Twp. food panty, the Library has converted (i.e., stolen) money it should have received for the benefit of Park Ridge taxpayers, and handed it over to another governmental/taxing body, Maine Township, which is not entitled to it. Some of us on the Board consider that wrong, for the reasons given at the Board meeting and recounted in this post but mysteriously ignored by the H-A reporter.

If you think giving away Park Ridge taxpayers’ money to Maine Twp. is the right thing to do, then say so. But if you don’t, are you really trying to justify another $7,000 theft from Park Ridge taxpayers this year by claiming that ending it a couple of months before it is scheduled to occur is “too abrupt”?

One of the jobs of Library staff is to collect fines where owed. Are you suggesting that the Library staff would NOT do its job and collect those fines if the people owing them didn’t pay them with food items through the FFF program? Seriously?

Finally, I stated on the record at the last Board meeting that we have no legal authority to give away $7,000 (or any other amount) of fines belonging to the taxpayers, and that doing so is a breach of our public trust. You may consider that “harsh,” but that doesn’t make it any less true. And since it was a significant point in the discussion conducted on the public record, the H-A reporter should have reported it – assuming that informing the public about the nature of the debate on this issue was her intention.

“If you think giving away Park Ridge taxpayers’ money to Maine Twp. is the right thing to do, then say so.”

We are not giving taxpayers’ money to Maine Twp. We are donating food that taxpayers have provided, with their express OK that we donate it in lieu of accepting a fine. And I am not suggesting that staff does not or would not do its job in collecting fines. I’m just pointing out that the food donated does not necessarily equate to the dollar amounts you adamantly maintain have been or will be “stolen.”

And since you keep talking about what was and wasn’t reported, I’ll just reiterate that we also discussed that this is a big year for the library. We’ve been celebrating 100 years in our community all year long and to end the year by abruptly canceling a popular initiative just didn’t feel right, especially as the library staff respectfully asked that we not do so for this holiday season.

As for those who don’t want to donate to the food pantry? The answer is simple. We’re not forcing anyone to do so. They can just wait until the following month and pay their fines if they are so inclined.

Lastly, I’ll say one more time that I am open to reevaluating the program. Libraries across the country, large and small, routinely offer amnesty programs like ours, which forgive fines so that outstanding materials can be recovered and patron debts can be reduced. I feel it’s worth discussing further before deciding, in a single sitting, to simply end it. Leveling accusations of “theft” at those who disagree with you is indeed harsh when it just isn’t true.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sorry, but that’s just plain wrong again – starting with the bizarre notion that by accepting food items instead of the monetary fines to which the Library is entitled, and then giving those food items to Maine Twp, “[w]e are not giving taxpayers’ money to Maine Twp.” Hyper-technically, you just might be right – in the same kind of way Bill Clinton was when he dissembled about what the meaning of the word “is” is.

If diverting yet another $7,000 from the Library and its taxpayers to Maine Twp. – and its little cabal of professional politician payrollers – is something the Library wants to advertise as a central element of its 100th anniversary celebration, by all means let’s advertise THAT on all our 100th anniversary promotional materials! Or if you consider this an “amnesty” program, why not call it that instead of camouflaging it as a FFF program?

As for what the staff wants in this regard, let me know where it says that staff is charged with making these kinds of policy decisions; and when staff swears an oath of office to do what’s best for the Library and its taxpayers, we can meaningfully discuss how much input they should have in this decision.

Frankly, it doesn’t matter one iota what the folks who choose to pay their fines with food items want, because our public trust doesn’t run only to them: it runs to ALL Park Ridge taxpayers. So even if you are correct in assuming that the folks who pay their fines in food items specifically WANT to benefit the Maine Twp. food pantry, that’s not THEIR call because THEY don’t have the right to make that decision for the Library and the other 99% of Park Ridge taxpayers. If they want to donate food items to the food pantry, God bless them – but not at the expense of the Library and its taxpayers.

Finally, putting this decision off for another year – after another $7,000 has flown out the window – is simply irresponsible, especially since we’ve already been derelict in our duty for letting it go on this long.

What part of this concept of “public trust” is so difficult to grasp?

Please go to the library website. The Mission Statement on it is exactly as 4:11pm presents it.

You are correct in your response to 4:18pm.

But if there is a Mission Statement as posted on the website, different then the one you quoted, there is a problem.

You would think something as easy as having a Mission Statement would not be miscommunicated by having two different ones.

What else is the library miscommunicating if they can’t get one Mission Statement correct?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Until yesterday, this editor/Library Board member didn’t even realize there were dueling Mission Statements. That’s mystery No. 1 for Inspector Clouseau.

The response at 6:53 was obviously from me. I guess I assumed the fields for name and email would have auto-filled with my info and in my haste I didn’t double check.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Thought so. No problem.

Can’t wait to resume this discussion in the official arena of our public service. Bring a lunch (or dinner). 🙂

It does seem like a simple concept to grasp. Taxpayer money goes to the things they are intended for, not for other uses unrelated to the money’s intended use.

I give money to the charities of my choice. I do not want government using my taxes to contribute to charities not of my choice. What is so hard about that?

EDITOR’S NOTE: No idea.

I think you are on to something; let’s have Park Ridge run its own Food Pantry with City employees instead of Township employees.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Why? Doesn’t the Maine Twp. food pantry work well enough for you?

Actually, we’d prefer a purely charitable food pantry run by the local Park Ridge churches…what do they call themselves…the Park Ridge Ministerial Association? Let them do it so that no tax dollars – Park Ridge’s or Maine Twp’s – are used. That might put a crimp in the Maine Twp. cabal’s political payroller program, but so what – they can just transfer the food pantry crew to the Twp. road crew.

So if you assume that there are 25000 taxpayers in PR, that would be 28 cents you might save each of us per year, or just over 2 cents per month……BLESS YOU!!!!!

Meanwhile, we just paid 800K for a study on the uptown project and even more for the actual project. If all this energy spent going after these “principle” issues were focused at these high dollar items do ya think we could find 7K worth of fat???

It reminds me of national politics where both sides argue about the role of government (food stamps or not) and never get around to digging into waste with vendors and contractors and subsidies.

But based on what I have seen on this blog, I am sure you will keep after it and badger the hell out of the other board member so that next year this terrible act will be fixed. Forgive me if I do not do cart wheels.

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you’ve got a beef with the City Council’s spending $800K, show up at a Council meeting and say so. All this editor can deal with on the Library Board is the squandering of a measly $7,000 of taxpayer money. So that’s what he’s dealing with.

You are the ACLU of Libertarianism. Even when nobody with an ounce of humanity would agree with you, you persist for the sake of the larger principle. But what if the larger principle is really only mid-sized, and there is a still larger principle at stake — the one you are ignoring? And don’t hide behind your freedom from religion dodge — all religions and secular humanism agree that it’s a nifty idea to feed the hungry if only to keep them from your door. If that’s not a public good and a civic principle, I don’t know what is. If you really believe people’s lives should be dependent on the random, catch-as-catch-can kindness of strangers, a glance at any ole history book shows why that never did work out with any consistent efficiency. And don’t say the gub-mint has no role in articulating values + survival issues. It has a whole lot to say on the subject, which can be extrapolated to say the Library is within its public scope to levy food for fines. You can’t have it both ways.

EDITOR’S NOTE: “Both ways”? How?

We believe that charity should be dependent on the regular and predictable kindness of neighbors and private/religious charities in each community – for all the reasons de Tocqueville advocated in his “Memoir on Pauperism.” And a “glance at any ole history book” shows that such private/religious charities formed the primary “welfare” system for this country’s first 180 years – when it grew from a collection of colonies to the greatest country the world has ever known.

But if the Library’s “mission” is to use taxpeyers’ money to feed the hungry, why stop at a measly $7,000? Why not take $100,000 or $200,000 from the Library’s budget to not only feed the hungry but to also clothe the naked. And why not let the Library house the homeless by running a PADS shelter in the lower level meeting room?

While you’re pursuing your delusions, however, why not argue for eliminating governmental boundaries altogether, so that the Library Board – and the City Council, for that matter – can decide to funnel bundles of money to other governmental entities/taxing bodies like Maine Twp.?

Anon on 10.04.13 7:16 pm, what the heck are you talking about with your “we just paid 800K for a study on the uptown project and even more for the actual project”?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Beats us.

The author hit the nail on the head. It is the principle. The Library should be focused on being the best Library it can be given its resources. Its core mission does not deal with social services no matter how much someone wants to twist it into that. Social services are the responsibility of the boys and girls over on Ballard Road. If the library has $7k that it doesn’t need, it probably has more than that buried in its budget and then should be reducing its levy accordingly.

Don’t get me wrong – I like libraries and use them often. But the library should not sacrifice fines for food. While noble, it’s not their responsibility nor their money. Use that $7K and buy more books, books on tape, replace a broken printer, whatever.

If the library wants to help the township, make the library a dropoff for non perishable goods so residents can donate on their own — that may be a good way to “work together” and help the township/community with no real financial impact.

Works for me.

What 1:58 said. Excellent statement of a simple concept.

As a taxpayer, a frequent user of the library, and an annual donator of food items for fines (guilty!), I have to say I was stunned when I read this. I had absolutely no idea how much the library collected in fines, and that this event takes away an estimated $7,000 that could be used to cover other budget needs. That’s a lot of money!

This is especially troubling, considering that the library board usually pushes back each year when asked to tighten the purse strings, citing “increased circulation and workload” due to increased needs in our community.

Mission statement(s) aside, I propose this next year. Let’s experiment! Replace the program with a voluntary donation (e.g, bring a can for a movie!, etc.), and keep the fines intact for that month. You might be surprised at the amount of pure humanity that exists out there.

And if the city and library decide to keep the status quo, I am giving you fair warning. When I bring back those overdue books, I will be handing in my spare change in lieu of that Campbells soup can. But I’ll put that can in the pantry bin. All out of “principle” of course.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ve observed that those who insist on using government to impose their own social consciences and norms on everyone else have an incredibly high opinion of themselves – and a disappointingly low regard for their fellow citizens.

5:31 and PW are right on target with their comments. I contribute-donate a good amount of money AND TIME to various charities in this community and elsewhere BY MY CHOICE. I don’t need aldermen, or Library Board members, or Human Needs Commission members, or anybody else to tell me who, what and what amount I should contribute. Or to contribute for me. Whoever came up with this food for fines idea sounds like the kind of morally superior people PW references in his comment. Run the bleeping Library and leave the charity to us individuals.

Anonymous on 10.10.13 7:02 am: My view exactly.

How can Ms. Ebling say she would be “open to discussing and reevaluating the FFF again,” but only AFTER this year’s program has been run? What is there to re-evaluate? Either FFF is diverting public money from the library to Maine Twp. or not. And either Ms. Ebling is in favor of that, or she isn’t. It won’t be any different tomorrow, next week, next month or next year. Once the money’s out the door (or doesn’t even get through the door, because the library is getting food instead of money) that ship has sailed and that money is lost for good.

Is that situational ethics or dishonesty?

EDITOR’S NOTE: “Dishonesty” seems a bit harsh to us. Perhaps it might be better described as “rationalization.”



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