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City, library-support group disagree on money, authority

A pre-pandemic Thursday morning book sorting, where Friends of the Library volunteers determine which books might be saleable and which should be given away or discarded. File photo.

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — (Editor’s note: Gary Herron was a member of the Friends of the Library of Rio Rancho in 2009 and ‘10, serving on the board of directors in 2010. He hasn’t been a member since then.)

The City of Rio Rancho is closing in on 40 years of incorporation. The Friends of the Library of Rio Rancho group is closing in on a 39-year existence.

For those almost four decades, the city and Friends have been exactly that: friends.

Now, there’s a battle brewing between these two amigos over $100,000 the Friends have been saving for another library and the group’s refusal to use the money for current library programs during pandemic-caused budget crunches.

Since 2007, Friends has contributed $296,563 to the libraries; last year, Friends contributed 13,974 volunteer hours and more than $32,000 to support library programs. There are more than 200 Friends members. Their monthly book sales at the Loma Colorado building often generate at least $1,000, with that money used for library programs. As a nonprofit, Friends in 2018 obtained $5,140 in grants.

Now, the city wants to dissolve its association with the Friends nonprofit group. City staff or volunteers would run the monthly (when there’s not a pandemic) used-book sales and used-book stores at Esther Bone Memorial and Loma Colorado Main libraries, which the Friends have historically done.

It also intends to replace Friends volunteers with city volunteers.

“The city would have preferred to engage in a direct dialogue with Friends but now finds that it is best to abbreviate the period and streamline the means by which to resolve these problems,” city attorney Greg Lauer wrote, after hearing the Observer had learned of the disagreement.

Friends of the Library of Rio Rancho is a 501(c)3 volunteer organization that raises money to fund adult, youth and children’s programs at the Rio Rancho libraries.

Formed at a meeting of the Rio Rancho Governing Body in January 1982, what was once called the Rio Rancho Community Library Association became incorporated “as a separate organization dedicated to the establishment of a building fund for a new city library.” The group supported the construction of both Rio Rancho libraries.

The Friends’ side

Friends have retained attorney Nathaniel Lenke of Lastrapes, Spangler & Pacheco. He declined to comment, stating, “The parties are trying to resolve the situation.”

Lenke’s letter to the city, dated July 8, outlined the Friends’ concerns about the city’s plan, including that money from book sales “may eventually just become a part of the city’s general operating funds, not specifically earmarked for the libraries.”

Mentioning the city’s attempt to discontinue a 2018 memorandum of understanding (MOU), Lenke said he hoped to arrange a meeting between the parties. His letter was sent to Mayor Gregg Hull, Acting City Manager Peter Wells and all six city councilors.

In the MOU, the city agreed “that all donations from the public, and such materials culled from the libraries and donated to the Friends, are the sole property of the Friends,” and, “This agreement shall remain in effect unless and until it is modified in writing by mutual agreement of the Friends’ executive board and the city.”

The Friends don’t expect to agree to a modification.

“I’m not sure what (Library and Information Services Department Director Lynette Schurdevin’s) motivation is,” said former Friends President and long-time member Mary Roskom. “None of us had the feeling we were in an adversarial position — we’re in the dark why she wants us out of there. She said she’d get her own volunteers.”

Roskom said Friends knew something was in the works for a while.

“We came to an understanding two years ago; she wanted to charge us rent for the space there,” Roskom said. “What it boils down to, is the state says if you are renting to a nonprofit, you can set up a lease; but if they are giving you something equal in value to rent, or exceeding that, you can’t charge them rent.”

Roskom says a city takeover violates the existing MOU.

The city’s side

The city contends the Friends have amassed more than $100,000 for a third library, which the city has not had “any pressing need to consider, much less approve or fund anytime in the near or distant future.” Lauer wrote that the Friends are demanding the city adhere to that “privatized agenda concocted and engaged far and away from the transparency and accountability owed to the public and the community.”

“During the June 16 meeting, (Friends President Joseph) Driear conceded, he knew not just how long Friends expected to continue withholding these funds from the libraries’ programs and activities; he offered no commitment, either, that Friends would budge to distribute funds and help the libraries fund programs and activities during the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn, similar to how Friends denied the libraries’ previous requests for assistance,” Lauer wrote.

In his letter to the Friends and their attorney, Lauer had several stipulations, in which he said “a chance remains to mend the damage that has developed over the years.” He required that:

• In writing, the Friends issue an open statement to the city, retracting and apologizing for the July 8 letter, and address it specifically to Hull and Wells;

• Friends “fulfill a functional, appropriate and transparent role” stated in the MOU;

• Friends immediately and permanently stop further deviation from the volunteer role and attempts interfere with the libraries’ or city’s administrative charges and authority; and

• Friends operate and collaborate in good faith with the libraries.

If the city had not received that written statement by July 17, the city would end the MOU and its relationship with the Friends, Lauer wrote.

According to city spokeswoman Annemarie Garcia, “No formal response was received by the city from the Friends or their attorney by Friday (July 17). What the Friends receive from taxpayer-funded materials and miscellaneous items donated to the libraries will be significantly reduced going forward.”

Garcia said the library staff was working with its primary new-book supplier on a program to buy back, get credit for and recycle books no longer needed. COVID-19 is slowing library and Friends activity.

“Library staff will use this time to develop additional means by which to repurpose materials in its possession in order to generate revenue to fund community programs and initiatives that serve the public,” she said. “The Friends will be more than welcome to assist professional library staff with those efforts based on the parameters established by library staff.”

Driear, in an email to the Observer, wrote, “We’re trying to set up a meeting with the city to resolve the disagreement between the Friends and the library/city. We hope this will happen very soon.”