About 45 members of the public attended a special meeting of the Fullerton Library Board of Trustees held on the morning of Saturday, May 5 at the now closed Hunt Branch Library located at 201 S. Basque Ave. The meeting was called, in part, to address concerns about the possibility of the city council selling the property, which is currently leased to neighboring church Grace Ministries International. In addition to library staff from the Main Branch, observers of the meeting included Councilmember Bruce Whitaker, who, along with Councilmember Jesus Silva, has advocated for keeping the Hunt building as a public facility.
Before the meeting, Library Director Judy Booth led visitors on a rare tour of the mid-century modernist building’s spacious interior, meeting rooms, and charming atrium spaces, which all appeared to be in good condition. The William Pereira designed structure was donated to Fullerton by Hunt Foods Chairman and art collector Norton Simon in 1962. Norton Simon once had his offices in the adjacent Pereira office building now owned outright by Grace Ministries. The campus, including the library, was home to sculptures by Rodin and Giacometti, but were eventually moved to the Pasadena museum that now bears the collector’s name.
Most of the Hunt Branch’s books were moved to the Main Library when Grace Ministries moved into the space three years ago. White plastic chains were strung across shelves now filled with books owned by the church. Other stacks still holding parts of the library’s collection were shrink-wrapped to prevent access to the books.
The meeting was called to order at 10:35 a.m. with all five trustees present: Chair Sean Paden, and members Ellen Ballard, Ryan Cantor, Joshua Dale, and Carl Byers.
Following public comments on items unrelated to the agenda, Library Director Judy Booth reported that at it’s most recent meeting on May 1 the Fullerton City Council decided in closed session to schedule a study session about the Hunt Branch, that the Hunt Branch would also be on the agenda of the council’s May 15 meeting, and that Councilmember Jennifer Fitzgerald stated that she favored the Fullerton City Council appointing themselves as members of the Fullerton Library Board of Trustees and establishing a new library advisory council.
Before proceeding to Regular Business, Chair Sean Paden asked his fellow trustees to consider all six items on the agenda, listed below, concurrently in order to allow members of the public to address their comments to all of the items at once.
Thirteen people, including two former members of the Library Board of Trustees, spoke during the public comments period. All favored keeping the building in the public realm, though suggestions about its ultimate use varied among speakers.
Several speakers recalled attending the library on a regular basis, either as young students themselves or as adults with children of their own. Lauralyn Escher of the nonprofit All the Arts for All the Kids recalled seeing Norton Simon’s August Rodin sculptures installed at the Hunt.
One speaker noted that most of the parents in the immediate area served by the Hunt Branch could not afford to pay for summer camps in other facilities, and that adding programming from cultural non-profits at the Hunt site would benefit lower income children.
Elizabeth Gibbs spoke of the building as an heirloom that should be cared for instead of sold. Others advocated working with the Los Angeles Conservancy and seeking funding related to the building’s significance as a mid-century modern building, now over fifty years old and eligible for various historic designations.
Several speakers thought that the park surrounding the Hunt could be incorporated into programming as well.
Vince Buck, a former library board member, stated that the library was shut down not because of nearby homeless people, but because the city council had cut the budget to the library, and the former library director made the choice to use all funds for the main branch. He suggested partnering with the Getty, among other institutions, as well as Cal State Fullerton. He noted that a representative of Senator Josh Newman had appeared at the last meeting of the trustees, suggesting that the office might be able to find money for the Hunt.
5th District City Council candidate Ahmad Zahra challenged the library trustees to provide a solid argument to keep the facility open (which he favors) in order to counter an anticipated argument that not enough money was available to operate the library.
Two speakers wanted the Hunt to become a shelter for the homeless people, suggesting that the Hunt could be leased out and paid for with housing vouchers.
The trustees responded to public comments and questions before proceeding to the six agenda items. Trustee Ellen Ballard stated that the public comments reflected the view of the library board and expressed support for involving other non-profits in the Hunt’s operation. Carl Byers cited the public’s participation at the meeting as a reason for maintaining the library board as a separate entity from the city council. Ryan Cantor stated that the Hunt would need a separate identity distinct from the Main Branch and adequate funding to re-open. An appropriate use of the building would require that the facility be open free of charge and indiscriminately to the public, and have a literary focus. If the facility were to be sold, however, the funds should go directly to the Fullerton Public Library, and not the city’s General Fund.
1. Define the intent of the gift of Hunt Library
Copies of the original grant deed to the property were include in the agenda, and passed around the room. It was reported that the so-called Reverter Clause, which stipulated that the property’s ownership would be returned to the Norton Simon Foundation if the Hunt was ever to cease its function as a library, was no longer in effect.
2. Renegotiate the lease of Hunt Library to Grace Ministries International
Saying that “we were supposed to have had this conversation three years ago,” Ryan Cantor moved that the trustees recommend increasing the month-to-month lease for the Hunt to $ 5,000.00 per month from the current rate of $ 1,500.00, based on his own “rough capital assessment” of the site. Trustee Cantor emphasized that the $ 5,000.00 figure was just a starting point, and was not meant as a long term solution. The trustees discussed whether or not rent could be structured in such a way that payments would directly benefit the library instead of into the city’s General Fund.
Chair Paden suggested staying with the current lease rate, but adding a significant maintenance fee, acknowledging that such fees are normally less than the actual rent, but could represent a higher figure than the rent in this case. Trustee Byers predicted that GMI would opt to vacate the building rather than pay such a dramatically increased rent. Mr. Paden’s motion failed to secure a second, and failed.
Addressing the question about what repairs might be needed for the building, Director Booth said that the heating and air conditioning system would need to be replaced. Trustee Ryan said that no study had been made to determine what facility’s needs would be over the next ten years.
Trustee Cantor formally motioned that the lease rate be raised to a market rate of $ 5,000.00 because GMI was not acting to fulfill the mission of the library with its occupancy. In making this qualification, he announced that he would support leasing the Hunt for a symbolic one dollar per year to an agency that would operate it in a way that supported its mission. Some trustees were concerned that recommending such a dramatic increase in rent would only antagonize the city council. Ultimately, the motion failed on a 3 – 2 vote.
3. Formally request the City Council to appropriate funds to operate the Hunt Library as a branch library
Sean Paden suggested tabling this item pending more information about the actual cost to operate the Hunt as a library. Ryan Cantor maintained that the figure of $ 1.3 million per year estimated in 2012 a report was still valid for an operating budget that would fund the library being open for two shifts a day over a five day week.
Trustee Ellen Ballard didn’t think the Hunt could operate viably as a branch library in the way it had in the past because it was too small to hold a significant collection of books.
Ryan Cantor motioned that $ 75,000.00 be allocated from the budget to develop a long range plan for the Hunt for fiscal year 2018/2019. This motion passed on a 3 – 2 vote.
4. Consider possibility of partnering with community organizations at Hunt Library
Mr. Cantor led the discussion with a list of possible partners who might provide programming at the Hunt. His list included the Fullerton Arboretum, The Muckenthaler Cultural Center, Fulleton School District (All the Arts for All the Kids), La Habra Children’s Museum and others. Other trustees and members fo the public suggested additional names, which were added to the list. The trustees agreed to divide the names among themselves and contact prospective non-profits to gauge their interest in responding to a potential Request for Proposals that might eventually be issued by the library.
5. Library Board of Trustees and outside legal representation
Director Judy Booth reported that, at the direction of the trustees, she had asked Fullerton’s City Attorney, Dick Jones, about the process for the trustees to hire separate legal representation. Mr. Jones was reported to have referred her to Fullerton Municipal Code, Section 2.16.40 (“The City Attorney shall be attorney for the Library Board. When required he shall attend their meetings, and shall perform such other services for the Board as may be necessary,” suggesting that the city council would not recognize any difference between legal representation of the library and of the city itself. Trustee Cantor motioned that the trustees request the presence of the city attorney for their regularly scheduled meeting in June “to discuss possible pending litigation.” The motion passed on a 3 to 2 vote.
6. Schedule further meetings about Hunt Library at Hunt Library
Further actions were deferred to the next meeting of the trustees on May 24 at the Main Branch. At meeting’s end, Ryan Cantor commented about the actions and attitudes of the trustees by stating that “we’re working hard on this, and we’re not giving up.”