ST. MARY’S – The Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s is asking the provincial government for permission to divorce from the Eastern Counties Regional Library (ECRL).
Citing what amounts to irreconcilable differences between the two organizations, St. Mary’s council wants the province to allow it to either “stand alone, as its own entity” or “join a library system that is more responsive to community needs.”
The appeal was made in a letter signed by all members of council sent to Communities, Culture, Tourism and Heritage Minister Pat Dunn — and copied to Guysborough-Tracadie MLA Greg Morrow and Central Nova MP Sean Fraser — on Feb. 22.
In the letter, council outlines a timeline for a list of complaints against ECRL’s executive since March 2021, when the two bodies began feuding over money and public hours at the Sherbrooke branch.
“It is no secret that the relationship between the Municipality and the ECRL has been strained over the past year,” the letter states. “We find that further positive communications with the administration of the Eastern Counties Regional Library will bear no positive fruit.”
At the centre of the dispute, the letter says, is “a lack of honest and transparent communication between the Executive Director, Board Chair of ECRL and the Municipality. Conflicting budget numbers, inaccurate reporting, non-responses to legitimate queries on these subjects, as well as a completely condescending verbal attitude towards the Council and the general public during an informational meeting have brought us to this point.”
St. Mary’s council and ECRL have been at loggerheads since the latter — which serves Guysborough, Richmond and Inverness counties, with about $960,000 in provincial and $234,000 in municipal funding (2020-21) — announced a new cost-service regime. Under the formula, St. Mary’s would be required to pay an additional $10,531 per year ($27,458 compared with the previous $16,927) in the current fiscal year, ending March 31, to maintain the Sherbrooke branch’s 25 hours of weekly operations open to the public.
ECRL CEO and Chief Librarian Laura Emery maintained that the decision was justifiable and necessary. “The open hours costs [at the Sherbrooke library] have been paid with the assistance of tax dollars from the Municipality of the County of Inverness and the Municipality of the County of Richmond,” she told The Journal at the time. “[But] library open hours need to correspond to the population and tax base that generates the funding.”
St. Mary’s Warden Greg Wier had insisted, however, that the decision forced council’s hand. “If your insurance company increased your premiums by 40 per cent for the same coverage with no option but to pay more or accept less coverage, most people being fiscally responsible would look for other options,” he told The Journal last April.
The dispute has generated debate and controversy in the community, with Nova Scotia’s former privacy and information watchdog Dulcie McCallum – a resident of both St. Mary’s and Halifax – going as far as telling The Journal that ECRL’s move to restrict branch hours was akin to “an attack on children and poor people” showing “that they are not in tune with how we use our library.”
In response at the time, Emery stated, “We’re encouraged to hear that people care about library service and would like to see the service restored. We hope that concerned individuals will speak with their councillors to support increased municipal funding for library service.”
Since then, though, the relationship between St. Mary’s council and ECRL ‘s executive has only deteriorated. According to the letter, the problem isn’t chiefly about funding.
“We would first and foremost desire to point out that this is not about money,” it stipulates. “Although we have questioned the diversion of Community Equity Grants provided by the Province as well as the mathematics used in ECRL’s request for services, we were fully prepared to provide the additional funding as demanded by ECRL.”
The letter states that on Sept. 8, 2021, “When questioned at the end [of a public forum, ECRL Executive Director Laura Emery] was not forthcoming with appropriate answers as to distribution of equity grant funds (insisting that we as a council did not know the definition of equity). She insisted we should find grants or funds to support the library ourselves and supplied no real quantitative data on where her figures came from and answered once very curtly, ‘If you want more hours, give us more money.’”
St. Mary’s council subsequently “sent in written form” its agreement to the new cost-service regime provided that the “open hours would be changed to times where the public would traditionally access the library” to accommodate more children and that Saturday hours would be added. The proposal also specified that the municipality not be on the hook for funding when the library closed for “personnel reasons.”
Despite this, the letter contends, “Our offer was rejected out of hand by ECRL. The written basis being personnel staffing (apparently the current librarian does not want to work evenings or Saturdays despite those requirements being specifically stated in the last employment advertisement posted for that position) and lack of a contract — something we do not believe any other municipality has with ECRL.”
It adds: “It should further be noted that there had not been a Library Board meeting since November 2021, so all of the recent decisions made by the ECRL in regards to funding and library availability were made without the consultation or consent of the governing board.”
The letter concludes with an appeal to Dunn to “consider one of two possible solutions: Allow the Sherbrooke Community Library to stand alone as an entity, maintaining our relationship with the Nova Scotia Provincial Library for support and access to books and other materials” or “allow the Sherbrooke Community Library to dissolve our relationship with ECRL and allow us to join a library system that is more responsive to community needs and services such as the Pictou, Antigonish Regional Library.”
In a statement to The Journal on March 18, Wier says, “Council has exhausted all options with ECRL,” adding: “We will wait for The Honourable Pat Dunn’s reply to our letter and keep all stakeholders informed of any progress.”
According to provincial spokesperson Mikaela Echegaray, the Department of Communities, Culture, Tourism and Heritage “just received the letter this week,” adding: “We will be considering next steps [and] will work with our community partners to address these concerns and work on solutions.”
Meanwhile, Morrow says that he has “been made aware of issues between the municipality and ECRL, both through the letter and during a recent meeting with council. I told council I would bring their concerns forward to Minister Dunn. I remain hopeful that the two sides can resolve their issues by working together.”
Asked about the substance of St. Mary’s complaints, Emery tells The Journal that “ECRL was not previously aware of the letter and we have not received a copy,” but disputed the contentions that the library rejected the municipality’s proposal and that there has been no library board meeting since Nov., 2021.
“We did not reject council’s proposal,” she states. “But instead [we] shared with them details about operating considerations and constraints that must guide the approach we take across the region we serve … The ECRL Board met on February 10th, 2022.”
She adds: “As we have indicated in previous correspondence, ECRL would welcome further discussions with the District of St. Mary’s Council. We continue to hope to be able to work together with them for the benefit of residents of the District of St. Mary’s.”