WALLA WALLA — As the Walla Walla County Rural Library District moves ahead with building a 15,000-square-foot County Central library branch, the controversy also advances.
Last week, the State Auditor’s office released news of two findings against the Library District. And a new controversy is coming to light over the Library District’s refusal to disclose the location of its proposed County Central library.
In the prior matter, the Library Users Coalition last year asked state officials to investigate a number of alleged illegal actions taken by the Library District’s board of trustees.
On Monday, the State Auditor’s office sent a letter to the coalition stating it agreed with two of the coalition’s allegations.
In the letter, investigators stated that when the district’s trustees sent letters to Walla Walla city and county officials stating they would not support annexation, the trustees made their decision in private rather than in a public meeting.
“We found documentation showing District Board Members engaged in email discussions and approved the letters outside of an open public meeting,” the letter stated.
The second finding against the district dealt with two full-page advertisements in the Union-Bulletin in August, in which the Rural Library District refuted a number of claims made against it.
“We were unable to find any documentation showing the (district) took action regarding the advertisements in an open public meeting. The advertisements were signed by the ‘Board of Directors,’ indicating the Board took official action. This should have been done in an open public meeting,” the letter stated.
Coalition representative Allen Kopf said he was pleased with the findings and added the coalition is still fighting to allow a vote of annexation, which the Rural Library District has refused to consider for at least three years.
“We are pleased that the State Auditor agrees with us that the county (rural) library board violated state law in deciding to refuse to allow city voters the right to consider annexation into the county library district. Consolidation of the city and county libraries would allow for more efficient delivery of services to all of our residents, which would benefit both taxpayers and users,” Kopf wrote.
Continuing their fight for an annexation vote, the coalition requested a number of public documents from the Rural Library District that related to real property acquisition and construction sites.
One of the goals of the document request was to learn the location of the proposed County Central Library, Coalition legal advisor Dan Clark said.
Those documents were recently turned over to the coalition, but all references to the proposed location were redacted by District officials.
“The point of not releasing the property to be purchased is to protect a property from competitive bidders. At this point it is too early,” Rural Library District Director Aletha Bonebrake said.
On Dec. 28, the Rural Library District held a special hearing where trustees discussed the purchase of the proposed property in an executive session.
After that meeting, the trustees adjourned to a public meetings, where they unanimously approved the purchase of the property for $250,000, but no disclosure of the address was given.
Other documents obtain by the coalition show that on Jan. 18 the Rural Library District agreed to pay $1,900 to Blue Mountain Environmental Consulting for an environmental assessment of the property.
Bonebrake stood by the board’s decision to not reveal the location at this point because no official purchase has been made.
Clark argued, however, that since an environmental assessment of the property has already been ordered, the owner already knows his property was chosen because he or she would have had to agree to the assessment.
“They claim there is no purchase agreement signed yet, and they are refusing to disclose where that property is located ... But nobody can enter his property without his permission. So clearly they are in touch with him. It is disturbing that they are hiding the ball from the community on this,” Clark said.
Other documents obtained by the coalition show the Rural Library District has faced obstacles in trying to obtain a loan for the $2.5 million project, including a rejection from Community Bank.
According to an email from Bonebrake to the USDA Regional Development office in Yakima, Community Bank in Pendleton had received a number of “complaints or public records requests or charges against the Library District that led their bank management to withdraw support of the loan.”
The Library District is now working on obtaining its loan through Old West Federal Credit Union, which has branches in Hermiston, Pendleton, Baker City, Prairie City and John Day, Ore., but none in Washington.
The current plan for the Rural Library District is to build a County Central library in the southern portion of Walla Walla to serve roughly 10,000 Library District taxpayers who reside in Walla Walla County Fire Districts 4 and 8.
For roughly three decades the Library District had paid the city of Walla Walla to provide library cards for unincorporated residents.
Bonebrake said a growing population in the southern areas of the county and a mutual decision by the city and Library District official to operate independent of each other has left the Library District with the need to build a library that will adequately serve its largest group of taxpayers.
“Is the rural library district adequately serving its constituents within the taxpayer district? And the answer is no. It has grown to where it needs a central library and we need a central library to service the people,” Bonebrake said.
The new library will accommodate up to 50,000 books and media items, seat more than 100, provide 46 computers and 26 with Internet connections, include a meeting room for 80 people, two study rooms, an acoustically separate room for children and families, a dedicated space for teens, a drive-up window, ample parking and a gift store that would also sell secondhand books.