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Compromise found on BPL funds

Library agrees to give accounting

Speaking at the West End Branch Libary, Jeffrey B. Rudman, chairman of the Boston Public Library board of trustees (center) and Bernard A. Margolis (right), president of the Boston Public Library, addressed concerns about the library's spending power. Speaking at the West End Branch Libary, Jeffrey B. Rudman, chairman of the Boston Public Library board of trustees (center) and Bernard A. Margolis (right), president of the Boston Public Library, addressed concerns about the library's spending power. (YOON S. BYUN/GLOBE STAFF)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By John C. Drake
Globe Staff / March 12, 2008

In the roiling battle between the mayor and the Boston Public Library, both sides blinked yesterday.

Library trustees agreed to give City Hall a detailed accounting of how they spend the proceeds from tens of millions of dollars in trust funds, while reaffirming their control of how that money is spent.

In return, Lisa Signori, city treasurer-collector, pledged to release about $2.5 million in trust fund proceeds that City Hall had held since December in a dispute about oversight and control of the money.

At a meeting of the board's trustees, many of whom said they were puzzled over the dispute, Signori stepped back from requiring that library officials submit expenditures to her office for approval, a move viewed as a power play by Mayor Thomas M. Menino. In November, the board, which is appointed by Menino, fired library president Bernard Margolis, whose term ends in June.

"There has not been a coup d'etat," said library board chairman Jeffrey Rudman, hoping to assuage some donors' concerns that City Hall might take over the library's spending power. "We decide how the money is to be invested; we decide how the money is to be spent."

Rudman sought yesterday to cool tensions ignited by a Feb. 5 letter from Signori to Margolis in which the city treasurer-collector asserted control over trust fund accounting, and Margolis's terse Feb. 15 response letter in which he accused City Hall of overstepping its authority.

The library, unlike most other city departments, is separately incorporated as a nonprofit, and state law gives the library system's nine trustees control over spending of proceeds from trust funds, but designates the city collector-treasurer as custodian of the funds. The dispute centers on the meaning of custodian.

In her letter, Signori said that effective immediately, the library's 180 trusts, valued at more than $54 million, would be "accounted for and monitored directly from the Treasury department consistent with all other trusts." Signori said yesterday that she does not have access to computer records of how the trust fund proceeds have been spent and that the information was not included in the library's annual audits.

Rudman said he had no problem giving Signori access to the information, provided that the identities of anonymous donors not be revealed publicly. Yesterday, the library posted on its website, bpl.org, a list of all its trust funds and their purpose and values. No anonymous donors names are included.

The meeting's other concession followed pointed questioning from trustees, who demanded to know why Signori had not disbursed proceeds from trust funds for 2008 in a lump payment at the beginning of the year, as had been done previously.

"If you are withholding funds from the library, you are wrong," said Trustee A. Raymond Tye.

"Where is the money?" asked state Representative Angelo M. Scaccia, vice chairman of the board. Signori said she would meet with library staff to arrange to hand over the funds. The library has been using revenue from overdue fines and grants to pay bills while it awaits trust fund revenue.

Sarah-Ann Shaw, president of the Friends of the Dudley Branch Library, said she was concerned that the recent dust-up will hurt local branches, giving them less control over spending for community programs. "It was unclear," Shaw said outside the meeting, which was held yesterday at the West End Branch Library, a few blocks away from City Hall. "Was someone else going to be in charge of what's funded and how the money will be spent?"

Shaw is a member of the advisory committee for the Fellowes Athenaeum Trust Fund, which, library records show, has an endowment of nearly $2 million to be used for literacy programs in Roxbury. She asked Rudman who controlled the spending of that money.

"Us, us, us, us," Rudman said.

Signori nodded in agreement.

John C. Drake can be reached at jdrake@globe.com.

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