If Freshman Assemblyman Das Williams has his way, California’s local governments and their library systems will have fewer options to deliver services in the future. A bill Williams introduced, AB 438, would restrict how and when local governments can alter their delivery of library services to residents.

“Libraries are a vital service,” said James Joyce, Assemblyman Williams’ Field Representative in the Ventura Office. “If folks are paying into the libraries’ systems, we want to make sure they have a say in them.”

Currently, city councils have the authority to enact, end or alter any means for delivering services to their residents. But council members do not act in a vacuum. With public comment, town halls, and petitions, city councils are designed to be responsive to the needs and wishes of their populations. However, ultimately the councils make the decisions.

It’s a model of representative government that has worked at every level of government in the United States for generations.

But AB 438 would change that system for local public libraries.

If enacted, this legislation would require a city- or district-wide vote of the population before a city could withdraw from a county library system.

This would lead to substantial costs to cities. Either a special election would have to be organized and paid for, or cities would have to run campaigns for passage during a regularly scheduled election. In either case, cities would have to further deplete already diminished budgets.

This strain will only be compounded by the fact that the Governor’s Budget for the upcoming year attempted to strip the state’s library systems of all of their funding. After negotiating, the Legislature was able to restore some of the funding but the state’s overall library budget was cut by 40%.

As those cuts filter down through the state, more cities may hope to find new ways to save money while still delivering services.

However, Williams’ bill will limit choice and make the job of city councils and library commissions more difficult.

What is troublesome about Williams’ bill is that it seems to demonstrate a lack of trust in the power of open, representative government.

According to a Fact Sheet on AB 438 provided by Williams’ office: “While it’s true that local governments are required to hold a public hearing, a public hearing is just that – a hearing. And noticing of these hearings doesn’t go to the public en masse. Notices are posted in a public place 72 hours in advance of the hearing. This isn’t necessarily broad public notice, unlike a vote of the people. More often than not people don’t even know when any public meetings occur. A public meeting is hardly comparable to a vote of the people.”

California has a long history of requiring open meetings and involving public opinions. The Brown Act has numerous requirements before any meeting can legally occur or items be voted on. With notice, public testimony, public votes, civil legal options to address violations, and even criminal punishments; the Brown Act ensures that the public has the ability and opportunity to weigh in on the issues that affect them.

However, AB 438 would abandon this representative system and bog down governments in a direct-vote, direct-democracy scenario. How many other issues could then be subjected to this new requirement?

When many cities are forced to look at outsourcing fire or police services, how long would it be before voters would demand a city-wide ballot for those issues? Or what about simpler contracts such as cityscape, utility services, or parks and recreation staffing and operational hours?

“Libraries don’t differ very much,” said Joyce. “Privatization of any service is a concern. This could be a gateway.”