It was a ploy right out of the Grand Traverse County board's old playbook: get out of town to make a big, unpopular decision and hope nobody will notice. It worked about as well as it did for the county board — which means not at all.
At a "special meeting" held in Kingsley, the Traverse Area District Library board decided to do pretty much what it said it was going to do earlier this year — cut services for the blind — despite a firestorm of complaints from patrons and their families.
So in order to save $45,000 a year the library will force local blind patrons to get materials by mail from the Michigan Commission for the Blind in Lansing, a service that was widely criticized for being slow and for sending along equipment (audio and Braille books and audio players) that didn't work or was damaged.
In it defense, the library said it will spend more time helping blind patrons get what they need. Library Director Metta Lansdale said mailing material locally took up a lot of time and shifting that burden to Lansing will allow the library to eliminate a half-time position. The remaining full-time librarian for the blind will focus on outreach and direct assistance to patrons.
That sounds great for the library — if its sole mission is to save money — but not so great for those who relied on the local service. And what are local librarians for if not to serve local patrons?
The library will also have to improve its self-acknowledged "weak" efforts to inform people about the service if it wants to maintain state funding, library officials said.
"The need for outreach ... is an incredibly important part of our service, especially for someone who is elderly and newly blind," Lansdale said. "We don't want them to suffer because they don't know about the service."
How patronizing. With a backhanded acknowledgement that previous outreach efforts had been unacceptable, Lansdale also managed to portray blind patrons as victims being saved by the library doing what taxpayers expect it to do in the first place. Most blind patrons weren't suffering, they were angry. And rightly so.
This entire episode has had an unpleasant side, from what many considered a condescending attitude by the library board and administration to the fact that in order to save a modest $60,000 (now $45,000) the library was willing to cut services to those least able to find alternatives.
Library officials never seriously denied that service from Lansing was poor or that equipment was often damaged or that patrons were essentially on their own dealing with the downstate service. But in the end, that's what patrons are going to get anyway.
In March, after hearing a multitude of complaints about the new plan, library board chairman Jerry Beasley sounded like he had gotten the message about the Lansing service.
"We had been assured by several sources there wouldn't be any compromise in the service, and what we heard ... from a lot of people contradicted that," he said. "A good many people ... had dealings with Lansing, and what they were saying was much slower service, broken equipment, and if that would be the case in the future we need to find out."
By the time the board voted, however, the Lansing service seemed good enough.
"We think this is a good resolution," Beasley said. "We kept hearing ... what people feared most was losing that personal service" here in Traverse City. So to improve that local service, the library will now eliminate a half-time position.
The final blow was calling a "special meeting" — the board had considered making a decision at its regular meeting in June, but said they needed more time — and then holding that meeting 20 miles out of town during Cherry Festival week.
Beasley said they couldn't find a date that worked for everyone when a room was available at the main Woodmere Avenue branch. With a straight face.
A member of the Lions Club, big supporters of services for the blind, had it right: "It just stinks," he said.