In 2011, with an Edgartown Library building project on the town meeting warrant, I was hired to help prepare an informational brochure for voters. For the back cover, I asked several town leaders for endorsements of the library plan. They were universally willing to help — well, almost universally.
The only person to turn me down, flatly refusing to endorse the plan for a new library on the site of the former 1924 elementary school, was Pat Rose — chairman of the library trustees and a director of ELF, the Edgartown Library Foundation
This was three years ago, when the ink was hardly dry on plans for a new library at the school site. Bitter opposition to the abandonment of the North Water Street site still ran deep in some quarters — including the library trustees and the leadership of ELF, which had been raising money for a new library on that site for years.
A pause, here, for full disclosure. In addition to serving as Edgartown’s reference librarian since the summer of 2006, and working in a freelance capacity on copy for that informational mailing in 2011, I also did a brief but intense stint of work on the wholesale rewriting of Edgartown’s $5 million state grant after the decision, in late 2010, to build at the 1924 school site. Looking back on the drama of the past seven years, and ahead to the prospect of breaking ground later this month for a new Edgartown Library, I must say that in my more than three decades on the Island, I’ve not seen a more fraught public process with a more wonderful final outcome.
ELF’s most successful fundraising years, according to its own tax filings, spanned from 2007 through 2011, when it raised a total of $606,284. After expenses and grants to the library, ELF reported $462,809 in its coffers at the end of 2011.
But remember, this money had been raised during a time when most library supporters thought the new building would be on North Water Street, with the historic 1904 Carnegie library as its centerpiece. And during this period, because ELF’s leadership included library trustees and even the library director, the foundation felt comfortable making promises to donors about “naming opportunities” — a common practice in the library fundraising game.
West Tisbury has a clear policy on naming opportunities, and its library foundation has raised $750,000 in pledges for the building now nearing completion. But Edgartown never adopted written guidelines on naming opportunities. And now ELF claims it can’t hand over some $300,000 it has raised because of promises it made back in the day, absent clear guidelines, but with the understanding that because ELF and the trustees had this overlapping membership, things would somehow all work out.
Well, things haven’t worked out. The library trustees most resistant to the new school site were swept from office in Edgartown’s 2011 elections — but they still hold the foundation’s purse-strings.
If you’re following the math, ELF does have a certain amount of unrestricted money, and in fact, the foundation was poised to hand $175,000 over to Edgartown at a wine-tasting at Lattanzi’s last year. But just days before that event, the foundation directors — in a sharply divided vote and arguably one of the dumbest moves in the organization’s history — decided not to write the check. This is when the real political hardball began.
Almost immediately, the new library trustees asked ELF to stop raising money for the library, to stop representing itself as the library’s fundraising organization, and to turn over its funds to the town. Edgartown instructed its counsel to ask the state attorney general whether ELF can be compelled to hand over what it has raised.
Meanwhile, since that moment at the end of 2011 when ELF reported net assets of $462,809, those funds have been steadily shrinking. In 2012, the foundation’s two fundraising events raised $32,000, but cost $36,000. (Maybe we should call them fund-losers?) And in 2013, ELF spent an undisclosed amount of its unrestricted funds — in what has to be this story’s ironic high point — on attorney’s fees, defending its right to withhold its money from the very institution for which that money had been raised.
What an incredibly hollow victory for ELF to say look, we’ve been vindicated — we don’t have to give this money to the library now if we don’t want to. I’d say it’s time for the directors to engage in some somber reflection on their organization’s mission statement. (It’s also past time, incidentally, for ELF to spend some time on its website, which proclaims, “2012 should be an exciting year!”)
Only by talking to some of the players, as I have done, can you appreciate how deep the animosity runs on both sides of this controversy. To date, playing hardball has cost both Edgartown and ELF money that could have been spent on library services for townspeople. Lawyers may ultimately be needed to help sort out how to use the restricted $300,000 in ways that honor the intent of the donors. But what’s needed now is not more adversarial litigation.
It’s time for ELF to put all its funds squarely on the table, and to work with the town toward a solution. Something as simple as a plaque in the new library’s entryway, and some conversations with donors, might be all that’s needed to resolve this mess.
Finally, with all this said, a bit of perspective. The disputed $300,000 represents less than three percent of the new library building project, which has been funded equally by the taxpayers of Edgartown and by a gift from the state. Groundbreaking for the new library will take place in the weeks ahead, and Edgartown should be enjoying a fantastic new facility sometime in the summer of 2015. And if you’re a library supporter wondering how you can express your support for the building project at this moment of estrangement between the foundation and the town, there’s an easy answer: Edgartown has set up a municipal fund to accept your gifts.