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Jim Kenyon: Plainfield goes to battle over book shed

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on Jan. 28, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 2/26/2019 10:22:32 PM
Modified: 2/26/2019 10:22:33 PM

Picking your battles is Politics 101, but the Plainfield Library Board of Trustees apparently skipped that day of class.

The five-member board has ramped up its long-running spat with the Friends of Philip Read Memorial Library over, of all things, a book storage shed.

The trustees recently barred the Friends, a nonprofit organization with 50 or so members, from using the large shed behind the library in Plainfield Village.

Never mind that the Friends helped pay for building the wooden shed nearly 10 years ago. Or that having a convenient space to store donated books is a crucial component of the Friends’ annual book sale that has raised more than $85,000 to the Philip Read Memorial Library’s benefit since the 1970s.

Without storage space, the “book sale appears on its way out,” Clint Swift, a Friends member, said at a Selectboard meeting last week.

If banning the Friends from the shed wasn’t small-minded enough, the trustees ordered the group a while back to remove its records from a file cabinet in the library basement.

Both seem like tit-for-tat moves. Trustees, the elected officials who govern the town’s two libraries, are not pleased that the Friends have balked at signing a so-called memorandum of understanding as it was first presented a few years ago.

An MOU, as it’s known, sets the ground rules for both parties in a relationship.

The reopening of old wounds couldn’t come at a worse time. At Town Meeting on March 16, voters will be asked to approve $975,000 to replace the library in Meriden Village. Alienating the Friends of Philip Read any more than trustees already have won’t help the cause.

This isn’t the first time the Friends and library trustees have clashed.

In 2015, the trustees’ chairwoman, Suzanne Spencer, called Plainfield police during a board meeting to have a Friends member removed for talking out of turn.

In 2016, trustees eliminated the position of associate library director at Philip Read. Even if the trustees had good reason — and I’m not convinced they did — the optics weren’t good.

Nancy Norwalk, the 70-something resident who held the position, was a former recipient of Plainfield’s citizen of the year award.

Norwalk also was the driving force behind a $1 million fundraising campaign to renovate Philip Read. (The town contributed $500,000 to the project.)

With both sides lawyering up, the split with Norwalk got messy. Plainfield spent a bundle in legal fees — something town officials haven’t forgotten. They probably also aren’t thrilled that Norwalk now is president of the Friends group.

From what I can see, Selectman Ron Eberhardt isn’t helping matters. At last week’s Selectboard meeting, he lectured the few Friends in the audience about how they have “lost sight” of their role in Plainfield’s library hierarchy.

Over the years, the Friends have “usurped the power that was rightfully the trustees’ power,” Eberhardt said. “The trustees stepped up and started to take back the power that was theirs. The Friends didn’t like it.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s come to this,” he continued, before reminding the Friends that the “trustees run the show.”

No doubt the Friends’ fundraising abilities make them a force to be reckoned with. After the Five Colleges Book Sale in Lebanon, the Friends’ annual September sale arguably-the Upper Valley’s most highly regarded.

Book sale proceeds helped pay for Philip Read’s renovation and continues to fund extras, such as furniture and video equipment, that have “saved Plainfield taxpayers a lot of money,” Swift reminded the Selectboard. (Last year’s sale cleared about $5,000.) The Friends also have established a separate scholarship fund — named in Norwalk’s honor — for college-bound Plainfield kids.

Still I’m not sure why the Friends are considered a threat to the trustees’ governing powers. They’re not exactly on par with the University of Alabama football boosters.

“A lot of people’s feelings have been hurt on both sides,” said Town Administrator Steven Halleran, who grew up in Plainfield Village and has been in charge of the town’s daily operations for 30 years.

I wanted to talk with Spencer, the board’s chairwoman, and Nancy Liston, another board leader, but I couldn’t reach them this week. Librarian Mary King politely declined to talk with me.

In December, trustees voted to give the storage shed to the Friends, which on the surface sounds to be a good deal. Except it came with a major catch: The Friends couldn’t keep the shed on library property. How they were going to move the shed and then find a place to put it?

Not the trustees’ concern.

Last Wednesday, the trustees held a lunchtime meeting at which it rescinded the December vote to allow time for more “legal research.”

It potentially opens the door for keeping the shed on library property. But when Norwalk asked if the Friends could start using the shed again, she was told it was a no-go, according to meeting minutes. The board said it needs to vote on the matter at a later meeting.

When that will be, no one knows. In the meantime, I learned on Monday that King, the town librarian, will soon provide the Friends with a “wish list” of items that she’d like to see purchased with proceeds from the book sale.

Judging from history, it might be best for the trustees to leave the negotiations to King. The last thing that Plainfield needs is more library battles.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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