Edgartown Library Foundation frees up $110,000 for town library project

The Edgartown Library Foundation (ELF) released $110,000 for the construction of the new Edgartown Free Public Library Tuesday. — Photo by Michelle Gross

Signaling a possible thaw in the long-running battle that has clouded the effort to build a new Edgartown Free Public Library, Chris Scott, vice chairman of the library building committee, told The Times late Tuesday that the Edgartown Library Foundation (ELF) had given $110,000 in support of the library construction project.

The foundation’s decision to release part of the $452,365 it raised for the library project, then withheld following a sharp disagreement with town and library building project leaders, came one day after the town officially kicked off the project Monday. The donation took town leaders by surprise.

Reached by telephone late Tuesday afternoon, Margaret Serpa, chairman of the Edgartown selectmen, said she had no knowledge of the release of funds.

“It’s news to me,” she said.

Ms. Serpa said she needed to learn more about the circumstances surrounding the donation before she could comment further.

Mr. Scott said he did not know what precipitated the donation, but he suggested the foundation may have been waiting until the construction began, if only ceremoniously.

“But the question now is, where’s the rest of it?” he said. “I really do not know what’s going on.”

Deanna Ahearn-Laird, co-chairman of the Edgartown Library trustees, was less surprised. In a telephone conversation late Tuesday, Ms. Ahearn-Laird said there have been ongoing discussions with members of the foundation board that lately had helped to ease tensions.

“We met on a friendly basis,” Ms. Ahearn-Laird said. “We only discussed this one check. We never discussed the remaining funds. But now we can get some of the (ELF) promises fulfilled.”

Ms. Ahearn-Laird said the money was given with the express wish that it be used specifically for construction expenses. She said it will go toward “add-on’s” to the library, including wood floors and acoustic tiles.

“This money has been sitting around since 2006,” Ms. Ahearn-Laird said. “We finally got a check, and we’re very grateful to accept it.”

Ms. Ahearn-Laird said an emergency meeting has been called for today, March 27, at 3 pm at the Edgartown Library to officially accept the funds.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen with ELF,” Ms. Ahearn-Laird said. “They have approximately $360,000 that they’re still holding on to. We will continue to wait and see.”

Reached by email, foundation treasurer Susan Cahoon referred all questions to ELF president, co-chairman, and Edgartown lawyer Ellen Kaplan.

Ms. Kaplan, whom, Ms. Ahearn-Laird said, distributed the check, did not respond to repeated telephone messages left at her office or email.

Reached by phone Wednesday, ELF recording secretary Ann Tyra said Ms. Kaplan is the only person on the board authorized to comment on behalf of the foundation.

Speaking for herself and not as a member of the Edgartown Library Foundation, Ms. Tyra said the groundbreaking Monday has been a long time coming.

“I was thrilled that they are finally making progress at the building site,” Ms. Tyra said. “I can’t believe the reality of it, it’s really wonderful. It’s been a long time that I’ve been working on this, so I’m really thrilled.”

At the center of the long-running controversy is a total of  $452,365 in contributions that the foundation raised for the library project but had been unwilling until this week to transfer to the town to help with costs of the building project.

In 2006, library supporters created the Edgartown Library Foundation (ELF), a nonprofit organization founded to raise public support and funds to be used for the renovation, expansion, enrichment, maintenance, and benefit of the Edgartown Free Public Library, including the structural preservation and expansion of historic buildings to be used as and in connection with the Edgartown Free Public Library.

As the library project evolved and moved away from the current library site on North Water Street to the former Edgartown School site, ELF members expressed concern that the project would cost more than anticipated and refused to relinquish money for the project until all the funding for the project was in place.

Selectmen and the town’s library building committee clashed repeatedly with the ELF over funds the town believed the foundation had raised in support of the new library.

Tensions came to a head in May 2013, when the Edgartown Library trustees voted unanimously to completely and permanently sever their relationship with the Edgartown Library Foundation, to ask the foundation to stop raising money for the library, and to ask the foundation to transfer to the town all the money it has raised so far, to support the new town library.

Library trustees voted to establish a town account through which donations could be made to the new library building project.