Council debates charging for use of library meeting room

Chris Tucker, ctucker@ptleader.com
Posted 4/24/18

Whether or not a fee should be charged for users of the free meeting room at the Port Townsend Public Library was discussed during a Port Townsend City Council vote to adopt a policy for the …

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Council debates charging for use of library meeting room

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Whether or not a fee should be charged for users of the free meeting room at the Port Townsend Public Library was discussed during a Port Townsend City Council vote to adopt a policy for the library’s meeting room.

During the April 16 meeting, PTPL Director Melody Sky Eisler explained how important the space is for the community.

“One of the tenets of the Library Bill of Rights is if libraries are able to offer meeting space, they should, and provide equitable access for the community,” Eisler told council members.

Eisler said meeting room space at the library’s Library Learning Center (Charles Pink House) – located just west of PTPL – has been available for community groups free of charge since 2015.

“Free meeting space is not in abundance in Port Townsend,” Eisler said, explaining the demand for the library’s meeting space. “We have about 10 groups meeting a month at the library since we opened this up.”

All meetings must be open to the public and held during normal library hours, she said. The meeting room has a capacity of 20-30 people. Refreshments are allowed, but alcohol is not permitted. Those who use the room are responsible for cleaning it afterward.

The council voted 5-1 in favor of authorizing the meeting-room policy, with council member Robert Gray voting against.

Gray suggested groups who use the Library Learning Center for meetings should be charged to use the facility.

“The primary reason is that I don’t really believe the government should be competing against the private sector,” Gray said. “A lot of hotels and other places have meeting rooms in this town – probably 10, 15 different for-profit businesses that have meeting rooms.”

When the library provides free meeting space, “it’s impossible to compete against that,” Gray said of for-profit businesses offering private meeting rooms.

Gray said a cleaning deposit should also be collected up front from groups who use the Library Learning Center.

“It might sound a little harsh, but the taxpayers paid a lot of money for that building to be renovated into what it is now,” Gray said.

Council member Ariel Speser disagreed with Gray.

“I think providing free space is absolutely what the city should do. In my day job, I work for a nonprofit, and we serve low-income individuals and families,” Speser said, referring to the Northwest Justice Project legal aid program as an example.

In the past, Speser said, she had used the city’s Cotton Building for nonprofit meetings, but said the associated costs were a barrier for that work.

“I can’t always do that, because my nonprofit has a limited budget and my clients cannot pay for it,” Speser said. “I think that when you have nonprofits who are providing valuable services to community members, that that’s a great benefit to our community, and that level of education and outreach is absolutely an appropriate place for a library to help facilitate that.”

Gray said not all users of the meeting rooms are nonprofits, and some have membership dues.

Council member Michelle Sandoval agreed with Speser, and said that in addition to the library being competition to providers of private meeting rooms, it could also be viewed as competing with book sellers or Internet cafes, and that did not bother her.

“The library provides many, many useful services to all economic strata in the community. I think it’s probably one of the most wonderful things that there is about a civilized society.… I’m very proud that we have the ability to serve our community this way,” Sandoval said.

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