By Paola Hornbuckle
Financially strapped law libraries gave a collective sigh of relief last May when legislation proposing they foot the bill for services the counties have been providing for the last 111 years was amended. The original legislation would have forced the libraries to pay for their own facilities, mainly rent and electricity. The amendment proposed that counties continue to pay the bills for library facilities, but be able to review the costs to ensure the proper allocation of funds.
In a disastrous reversal of fortune, and without proper knowledge of what was afoot by library personnel, Assemblyman Mark Wyland managed to pass the original legislation without the amendment by applying it only to San Diego County Public Law Libraries last Tuesday, June 25.
If the counties do not decide to bail out the law libraries one of them might have to close its doors. Out of the three law libraries, Vista, El Cajon, and Chula Vista, it would be the latter the one to perish first.
“The South Chula Vista branch is the least used branch as far as people that come in compared to the other two, so it would be the first to go,” explained Charles Dyer, San Diego County’s Law Library Director.
Dyer is incensed about the underhanded way the legislation was passed.
“We were told by the county’s lobbyist that the bill was just a measure for improving financial accountability and that it would not affect us in any way. Basically we were led to believe it was not harmful,” said Dyer.
The Chula Vista community, with its high Hispanic population, would be the most affected by the closing of the South Bay branch and the help and direction of its bilingual personnel. “The law libraries are heavily used by members of the public. They stay longer and work harder to find out information. Even the lawyers who use it tend to serve low and moderate income clients, and are public attorneys or district defenders,” explained Dyer. Baffled at the latest turn of events, Charles Dyer can only speculate about the reasons. “When there is not enough money to go around, people start squabbling,” he sighed, “somebody must think there is money where there is not.”
Under the belief that the law libraries were out of danger, Dyer did not send a representative from the Council of Law Librarians to the hearing on Tuesday, June 25. Apparently, Assemblyman Mark Wyland breezed in at 7:30 p.m. when many representatives previously present had gone home. He proposed the original legislation apply only to the San Diego County Public Law Libraries to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Wyland stated that San Diego County Public Law Libraries were operating with a ‘money surplus’ and that they were fully capable of footing the bills. He presented a written analysis to back up his claims. Law library personnel never had a chance to see the financial report prior to the hearing, in fact, they did not know of its existence. Since there was no opposition to Wyland’s proposal at the hearing the damaging bill passed.
The idea that San Diego County Public Law Libraries are running on a surplus is completely “misleading” according to Dyer. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case. “We have the same budget now as in 1992, but the Consumer Index Report has gone up 25% and the Law Books have gone up 60%. We have lost 40% of our purchasing power since 1992, let go a large number of our staff, cut back our hours, and cancelled many of our subscriptions. Our fund balance is less than three months the operating balance. Last January, when due to a change of personnel in the Superior Court someone forgot to send us funding from civil filing fees we were in serious trouble,” lamented Dyer.
Apart from county governments, law libraries are funded by civil filing fees, private donations, and overdue book fees. Unfortunately, the number of civil filing fees has gone down in the last few years, while the number of people that use the public library has gone up. Many patrons that cannot afford to hire a lawyer use the public law libraries to gather information to defend themselves in court. Reference Law Librarians are highly trained individuals with a vast knowledge of the law, and they need to be in order to help patrons. Approximately 80% of their time is spent helping the public find their way amongst the maze of confusing legal jargon.
“With the law, you have to have accurate materials and up to date information or you will lose in court,” said Dyer. That is why the training of Reference Law Librarians, who often have either a law degree and/or an MLS degree is crucial in helping patrons. Personnel are already at an all-time low, hours of operation slashed, and important materials can no longer be provided. Many feel concern that this latest legislation can only signal disaster for the law libraries and the patrons who frequent them.