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Dispute between Crosby, library lands in court system

CROSBY - A longtime back-and-forth dispute between the city of Crosby and its library board has ended up in the court system. The Jessie F. Hallett Memorial Library Board filed a rare writ of mandamus in Crow Wing County Court on Friday. A writ o...

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The Jessie F. Hallett Memorial Library Board is asking the court to compel the city of Crosby to follow statutes surrounding the governing of public libraries. illustration.

CROSBY - A longtime back-and-forth dispute between the city of Crosby and its library board has ended up in the court system.

The Jessie F. Hallett Memorial Library Board filed a rare writ of mandamus in Crow Wing County Court on Friday.

A writ of mandamus is a court order that compels a government body to do something that it is legally required to do.

In this case, the library board is asking the court to compel the city to follow statutes surrounding the governing of public libraries.

The library board says that the city is in "direct violation of this law" when it took out money from the library fund (without direction or approval of the library board) to pay for a city lawyer in their dispute.

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The board also says that the city has not allowed it to set compensation for its employees recently, which is also a responsibility of the board, as defined in Minnesota Statute 134.

The dispute centers around the definition of a public library and who has the power to govern certain aspects of the library board, such as whether the library board has a governing board or advisory committee.

Library board members say the operation is a public library and by statute has complete control over its rules of procedure, selecting its officers and staff, and control over the library fund.

The Crosby City Council says the library is a department of the city, and therefore, the council has the power to set wages and dip into funds in certain circumstances, among other things.

Part of the legal definition of a public library is any library that receives at least half of it's financial support from public funds, according to state statute 134.001.

Crosby's library is unique in the fact that just under 10 percent of its funding comes from the city. About 70 percent comes from Hallet Charitable Trusts and the rest comes from The JFHML Friends Foundation.

Still, the library was grandfathered in as a public library when the new public library law was put into effect in 1978, according to the State of Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor.

That means under state law, the control of all library funds and the hiring and setting compensation for staff are in the exclusive hands of the Library Board, said attorney Mark Severson, of Thomas & Severson, P.A., who is representing the library pro bono, along with Kevin Egan, a retired lawyer who was brought on the case through the Initiative Foundation and LegalCORPS.

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Beyond appointing new members to the board, the council possesses only the authority to approve purchases of land and proposals for the erection of buildings, Severson said.

The recent dispute that is now ending up in court started in 2013 when the city wouldn't let the board set compensation for its employees, going against state law, the Library Board said in its writ of mandamus.

The city rejected the $13 an hour compensation for new part-timers brought forward by the library board, and set a different amount of $10, which is less than part-timers in other city departments, head librarian Peggi Beseres said.

Other part-time city employees make $10.45 and $13 an hour, she said.

Additionally, the city dipped into the library fund to pay for the city's lawyer fees in settling the matter. That adds up to about $5,800 right now, but will quickly increase as the case moves forward in the court system, Egan said.

That's why Egan and Severson plan to file an emergency injunction to prevent the city from continuing to use library funds to pay lawyer fees.

Crosby Mayor Joanna Lattery said it's city policy to use funds from specific departments if an attorney needs to be hired to settle a dispute between the city and the department.

"All departments are treated the same ... The library is treated no different than any city department," she said.

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She added that in regard to setting compensation, each department is different when it comes to pay for employees.

The two groups have been trying to resolve the issue outside of the court for months. They looked into mediation.

Egan said the city backed out of mediation, which is why the board filed the writ of mandamus.

Lattery said the city never backed out.

"The council is very disappointed with the way the library board has handled this. We haven't changed how we managed the library for many years," Lattery said, noting that the council runs the library as a city department.

Library employee's pay, benefits, and any payment transactions are done through the city, and pulled out directly from the library's fund.

The fund money that does come from the city goes to maintain the building, Beseres said.

Tensions between the library and city have "simmered from time to time. But it is more intense with this administration than it has ever been," Egan said.

"What's troublesome with (the city council) is that more and more they're trying to assert control over the library, but the statutory set-up compels that (the library board) be independent," he said.

Neither library leaders or city representatives can pinpoint how it got this far.

Lattery said the city and council are "very disappointed" that the library board filed the writ of mandamus.

"This didn't have to go this way ... The city wishes to get this taken care of and move forward in a timely fashion," she said.

Lattery declined to comment on how the city will respond to the writ of mandamus, as officials are still discussing the issue.

A hearing will likely be set by the court within the next two months or so. At the hearing, both sides will make their case and the judge will make a ruling.

Or the two parties could still reach an agreement, which a judge could ask they do.

JESSIE PERRINE may be reached at jessie.perrine@brainerddispatch.com or at 855-5859. Follow me on twitter at www.twitter.com/brainerdnews .

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