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‘Devil’s in the details:' Jackson to make adjustments to FRL proposal

‘Devil’s in the details:' Jackson to make adjustments to FRL proposal

Jackson County will make some adjustments to Macon County’s proposed changes to the Fontana Regional Library interlocal agreement after the board reviewed those changes in December and then directed its attorney to do the same. 

“Our interim attorney has been going through this new potential contract agreement and has some follow-up thoughts on how we can work through this process with Macon County and Swain County and hopefully find us a nice happy medium,” said Commission Chairman Mark Letson.

The Fontana Regional Library system governs libraries in Jackson, Macon and Swain counties. The interlocal agreement is currently undergoing its 10-year renewal process and this time around, county commissions are looking to make some changes.

When the Jackson County Commission reviewed the changes proposed by Macon County at its December meeting, then-County Manager Don Adams recommended that the county attorney review the document and provide legal counsel. Board attorney John Kubis did so and presented his findings to the commission during its Jan. 9 meeting.

“There’s a fair amount of material to digest within this document,” said Kubis. “I think it can generally be broken down into three areas that the counties are looking to address and structure some revisions to the agreement.” 

Those three general areas include reforming the structure and governance within the agreement to increase transparency, revisions and amendments to change the means by which the FRL makes decisions and how those decisions are enforced, and finally, what recourse is available to the members of the agreement if they choose not to be a party to the organization.

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Kubis noted that under the new amendments, county commissioners would not only be the adjudicating body for compliance by library trustees but would also be in charge of making sure that the county libraries and their individual branches are acting in accordance with the intent of the agreement.

Within that responsibility of enforcement, Kubis drew particular attention to the proposed statement that was added in section two of the agreement which says that “the Fontana Regional Library shall operate the county libraries and branches in the participating local government units in a socially and politically neutral manner.”

“There’s been some discussion with the board and in public comment as to what this means,” said Kubis. “Certainly, whatever it does mean, it means that commissioners are now going to be in a position to determine whether or not libraries are acting in accordance with the socially and politically neutral manner language.”

Kubis sees this as a possible sticking point.

“It seems reasonably likely that there’s a question as to whether these matters are going to be brought before the board in quasi-judicial hearings, what it looks like to apply those higher standards, a judicial procedure based upon this, and, frankly, what that term is ultimately going to be meaning and how it’s going to be interpreted,” Kubis said. “I think it’s reasonable to foresee that there is going to be some question about how decisions under that are made.” 

Chairman Letson echoed Kubis’ concerns for the language in this part of the agreement.

“Even though the wording is easy to read, it’s very subjective,” said Letson. “Even though we know what we’re trying to get across, in terms of let’s be non-partisan, nonjudgmental, it just leaves it open, especially if we’re going to be the policing bodies.” 

Kubis also presented concerns to the board about the pathway that has been outlined in the proposed changes for what happens if an entity decides to leave the system. As currently proposed, all funds and resources that have been received and accrued through the Fontana Regional system would remain with the individual county upon leaving the system.

“If that is ultimately deemed to be the case, there’s questions as to whether or not there’s a sense of fairness in the county’s keeping those assets and if it’s ultimately determined that is not the way that folks want to go and there seems that there needs to be a division of [assets], that is going to be a process that needs to be further considered and fleshed out,” Kubis said.

Kubis suggested determining how resources would be divided and distributed in an equitable way in the case of one county pulling out of the agreement and how that process would impact the counties remaining in the agreement.

Commissioner Smith said he does not think the goal of the proposed changes are to split the system up. For him, an important part of the changes has to do with increased transparency.

“I think we need some additional visibility and accountability from somebody that’s elected or in a position that can do something about it,” said Smith. “Because right now the way the board is structured, the local library boards answer to nobody but themselves. Any time you’re dealing with a public entity, the public needs to have somebody that’s accountable for that and right now there’s no accountability.”

When it comes to the chain of command, Smith expressed discomfort with the proposed change that makes county commissions the first line of defense against solving problems between libraries and patrons.

“If somebody gets mad at the library for something, whatever it is, I don’t think we should be the first in line. They should go to the library, the library staff, then the FRL board,” said Smith. “The library system itself should be self-governing to a point.” 

According to Letson, the board will give its feedback on the proposed changes to the Macon County Commission. Swain County is also reviewing the agreement and may have additional feedback.

“It seems that there is a good intent here,” said Kubis. “There are some structural and philosophical revisions to this that make sense, but as always, the devil’s in the details, and I would put it to the board for consideration on whether and to what extent there needs to be further conversation about how we want to enact these changes and whether we’re doing it in a way that makes sense to carry out the intended purpose of the agreement as drafted.”

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