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Aldermen pop mayor’s library referendum balloon

Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl proposed this morning that the city add an advisory referendum question to April’s election ballot asking whether voters want to close the city’s branch libraries.

But her trial balloon was was rejected immediately at a budget discussion session by aldermen on both sides of the branch library controversy.

Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl proposed this morning that the city add an advisory referendum question to April’s election ballot asking whether voters want to close the city’s branch libraries.

But her trial balloon was was rejected immediately at a budget discussion session by aldermen on both sides of the branch library controversy.

Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, who wants the branches closed, said Evanston shouldn’t move toward California-style government by referendum. Aldermen are elected to be leaders and make decisions, Burrus said, and a referendum would "just let us hide" rather than taking a stand.

She argued that a referendum’s outcome would not truly represent the views of the majority of residents because wealthy people vote in higher numbers than people with lower incomes and whites vote more often than minorities. The existing branches are in some of the city’s wealthiest and whitest neighborhoods.

Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, who wants to keep the branches open, said he agreed with Burrus that the City Council should make the decision. But he suggested the council should give the Library Board a set amount of money for its overall budget and let the board decide what to spend it on.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, who favors closing the branches, said that if there were to be a referendum, it should be on establishing a separate library district — completely independent of the city, with its own elected board. She said she’d support holding that referendum, though she’d vote "no" on it in the voting booth.

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said she’s generally against referendums. "We were elected to make decisions," Fiske said.

Fiske, who’s considered a possible swing vote on the library issue, said she had favored establishing special service area taxing districts to fund branches, an idea that branch library supporters strongly rejected. She said she’d like to see that idea looked at again.

Fiske also said she believes libraries can be very helpful for the economic growth of neighborhood business districts in which they are located.

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, a branch supporter, said she’s "struck by how divisive the issue is, when it shouldn’t be."

"People who support the branches don’t seem to think there’s anybody out there who disagrees with them," Wynne said, "And people who don’t support branches don’t appreciate how many people do support them."

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, said he was still unclear about the state of the law is about control over the libraries and called for the city’s law department to produce a definitive analysis backed up by citations to case law and state statutes.

He said the council needs to better understand what its options are.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz has proposed that library funding be left essentially unchanged in the 2011 budget from what aldermen approved for this year but that the branches be closed and the additional resources be devoted to the main library. If the branches were not closed

The mayor’s referendum proposal was not put to a vote, and it was unclear whether it might be revived at some point in the future. 

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