Massachusetts Public Library Trustees Handbook
Some Massachusetts municipalities are governed by special legislation or a charter, components of which may or may not relate directly to the library. It is critical for trustees to know if their municipality has such a charter or has plans to implement one, and if so, how its provisions affect their library. While trustees have traditionally looked to Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 78 to delineate the rights and responsibilities of trustees to exert "custody and management" over public libraries, a local charter may take precedence over Massachusetts General Laws.
If your community is planning a charter change, make sure that at least one trustee becomes familiar with the charter change process, and is informed every step of the way about the proposed changes. A proactive board is a well informed board which serves as a partner in the change process. It is much easier to keep unfortunate changes out of the charter than to try to fix problems after the fact. The following are issues which may not constitute the main thrust of the changes to the charter, but may somehow "sneak" in if trustees don't pay careful attention:
Who will the director report to? In some towns, the town administrator has the authority to appoint department heads. Make sure that the power of the board of trustees is not eroded; in other words, make sure it is spelled out in the charter that the board of trustees controls the library and appoints the director.
Will the library be grouped with other town departments for purposes of efficiency? The library could lose its status as a separate department, becoming combined with other departments which do not share common missions.
Will all human resource functions be centralized? Under whose control? Trustees should help develop a municipal plan for the transfer of employees between departments. Make sure the director has responsibility for hiring, dismissal, and supervision of library personnel.
Any charter proposal should contain provisions specifying the duties and powers of the board of trustees. Make sure the board has control of the library's budget, personnel issues, and policy making authority.
Another issue that might be introduced is the number and kind of trustees. Monitor for proposals for a change in the way trustees are elected or appointed. Who has the authority to appoint trustees? Will there be ex-officio trustees (those appointed by virtue of their office, i.e. selectmen and clergy) who may change the constitution of the library board?
If your municipality is considering a charter or home rule change, it is imperative for your board to be involved and aware of the seriousness of the issues at stake. If charter reform, home rule petition or other effort is underway to revamp municipal power and decision-making, the library should get involved right at the start to advocate for wording which exempts the library from being under the control of another municipal department or officer.
Successful boards of trustees know what's happening in their communities and are active players in the local political process. Remember that it is your responsibility as a trustee to advocate for the best possible library services and practices.