Council Should Deny the Mayor’s Nomination of Neil Albert to the Library Trustees

The DC Library Renaissance Project opposes the nomination of Neil Albert to the Board of Library Trustees. Among other things, Mr. Albert’s focus is on real estate development, which is not a priority of the board. Moreover, the details of some of Mr. Albert’s very controversial actions in his previous role as a DC Government official on two library development projects indicate that he is not suited for this particular board service.

Martin Luther King Library: On behalf of the administration of former Mayor Anthony Williams, Mr. Albert spearheaded an inexplicable attempt to divest DC of its central library (and only local memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.). That plan—covertly introduced through a mention buried in the 2004 Budget Support Act—was notable in retrospect for its total disenfranchisement of the public. Eventually uncoupled from the BSA, the plan to sell Martin Luther King, Jr. Library became the subject of multiple hearings demanded by the outraged public and was subsequently dropped.

West End Library and Fire Station: In his position as Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development during the Fenty Administration, Mr. Albert supported and advanced July 2007 sole-source emergency legislation (a no-bid arrangement) for a large real estate development effort in the West End. The project involved the giveaway of multiple public parcels, including the West End Library. The private beneficiary of DMPED’s largesse in this case was real estate developer EastBanc. Sustained public outcry compelled City Council to investigate, and in the course of one hearing, Mr. Albert was summoned to testify about his ownership—a clear conflict of interest to which he admitted—of an investment apartment in the condominium building located directly across from the proposed development. City Council rescinded the emergency legislation in October 2007.

In a related issue, subsequent legislation was brought to Council by citizen groups working with the American Civil Liberties Union to require public inclusion in the “surplus and disposition” of public land, a “best practice” already used by other jurisdictions that testified during these hearings. After these improved public inclusion processes were mandated, a new and purportedly competitive Request for Proposals (RFP) on the West End project was issued in late 2008 by DMPED.

The parameters of the RFP were strikingly similar to the original no-bid proposal, and, despite much initial developer interest, there was no response to the initial RFP. Mr. Albert’s office adjusted and re-issued the RFP, which resulted in only two responses, EastBanc’s and another developer’s (that proposal did not include the fire station property). Predictably, EastBanc’s bid—which had been shopped around the neighborhood since 2004—was chosen by DMPED and the community was supportive, primarily because it had no idea that its extremely valuable assets were being traded away for a pittance…

We ask City Council to consider Mr. Albert’s history of poor judgment and stewardship while a public employee. Moreover, it was announced in February 2011 that Mr. Albert, who left with the outgoing Fenty administration, is now working as a senior policy advisor in the Public Policy & Regulation Practice Group of Holland & Knight, the Zoning and Land Use firm for EastBanc’s real estate development projects. Surely, there must be more suitable candidates—with a record of advancing the public’s interest through libraries—than Mr. Albert and we ask that his nomination be denied so that person or person(s) can step forward.

Why Build New Libraries to Keep Them Closed?

Over the last five years, DC Libraries have undergone a $180 million capital investment in “transformation”: 14 new buildings with more space, improved energy efficiency, greatly expanded computer access. It stands to reason that we need more money to support a system that is larger and serving far more people than it was in 2008 (the last time DC had a full complement of hours including all mornings, four evenings, and Sundays).

It should not come as a surprise that the modernized libraries are leaner, greener, and more efficient. The Board of Library Trustees’ request for $10 million over last year’s bare bones budget — for a return merely to 2008 funding levels — would be a 13% savings when adjusted for inflation! This is an amazing bargain, especially considering the increased numbers of people being served.

In 2006, during the Library Listening Sessions of the Blue Ribbon Task Force, people prioritized “being open.” So much so that then-Library Committee Chair Kathy Patterson fought to open library branches on Sunday. Sunday proved to be the Library’s busiest day of the week. The cost to open DC’s branch libraries on Sundays in FY2013 would be only $1.8 million.

The Task Force recommended that new Libraries be regarded as “gathering space.” Notable libraries across the country were described as the nation’s new “living rooms.” Four District libraries that had been closed for rebuilding in 2004 had to cancel and redesign their plans because residents demanded more meeting space.

Coming in second after “being open” was everything else: collections, literacy, computer access, and programs for children, teens, seniors, handicapped, and homeless patrons.

It’s impossible for libraries to provide any of these when they are closed.