Group tries to reverse Renton library vote
A group known as Save Renton Library recently hired an attorney to try to overturn the result of an election earlier this month that allows the city's library to be merged into the King County Library System.
Seattle Times staff reporter
That's all it took for the Renton Public Library to merge into the King County Library System. It was the closest result in February's election, and the changeover is expected to start Monday.
But a group of library-loving residents has a message for Renton officials: Not so fast.
Known as Save Renton Library, the group recently hired an attorney to try to overturn the outcome, in which the final count was 6,395 yes to 6,342 no.
The group argues that the city sent out misleading information on tax increases which, they contend, swayed just enough voters to approve the annexation. They say the library, known for its cozy atmosphere and "top-notch service," will not be the same under county authority.
They fear a breakdown in personal connections with librarians, because King County organizes libraries into "clusters," a system in which managers rotate staffers among nearby branches. The group also voiced concern that the county would be unresponsive to local needs.
Reversing an election is rare, at best. Even the group's leader admits the odds aren't good. She found their attorney, John Martin, on Craigslist and felt he was the right guy because he seemed passionate about gunning for the underdog. Plus, he lives in Renton. His Web site states that there's "no such thing as a small case."
So now, what started as a fight to keep a beloved library under local control has morphed into something else — a battle with City Hall.
"We feel the voters have been duped," said Lynar De Luca, the group's co-chair. "It's now about holding the city accountable."
The city has been talking for at least two years about the financial strain of running its main library and the Highlands branch. Last year, the City Council decided to put the annexation before voters.
The city then sent out a flier with residents' December utility bills, explaining the upcoming measure. This is a legal and acceptable method of communicating with voters, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC).
Don Persson, City Council president, said a draft was first sent to the PDC.
"We asked them, 'Is this OK? Is it biased?' They said it was OK but recommended minor changes, and we made them," he said.
The city laid out that it couldn't afford more services. And if voters rejected the annexation, hours would be cut and staff temporarily would be let go.
Love for the library, which straddles the salmon-spawning Cedar River, runs deep. A Facebook page for "Save Renton Library" reveals why members feel compelled to keep it going. More than 300 people are fans on Facebook.
"It's about our values: Independence, loyalty, customer service, a sense of place, the little-guy vs. the giant," according to one status update. "It's about our community, history and doing things our way."
According to the city's flier, property owners with a $400,000 home pay about $104 a year in taxes to support the library.
But questions soon started swirling over that figure, and on Jan. 27, the city said it had goofed, correcting the estimate to $84 a year. A retraction appeared on the city's Web site and in the local newspaper.
Some residents felt the mistake proved what they'd suspected all along — that the city was trumping for a "Yes" vote and downplaying how much it would cost to belong to the county system. Two complaints were filed with the PDC. Both times, the agency declined to investigate.
Quite simply, there was no evidence that the flier was promotional, said spokeswoman Lori Anderson.
"We thought it was a fair and objective presentation of the facts," she said.
Whatever numbers were tossed around before the Feb. 9 election are moot now. Voters in the county system just approved a levy-lid lift. So starting next year, property owners in the system, which now includes Renton, will pay 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. On a $400,000 house, that's $200.
King County libraries have the third-largest circulation in the country. No. 1 is Queens Library, and second is the New York Public Library.
Bill Ptacek, director of the county libraries, said once it takes over operations and there's a transition period, there will be an increase in hours "almost immediately."
"There are good things coming," he said, adding that staff will add more computer work stations and meet with the community to find out what it wants.
Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or firstname.lastname@example.org