PHILADELPHIA, PA -- Judge Idee C. Fox today ordered Mayor Nutter not to close any library branches without City Council approval.
Nutter will appeal, but the dramatic development may force the mayor to bring his library closure plan up for a vote before City Council, where council members will face intense pressure not to close any branches in their districts.
The order was issued shortly after 1 p.m.
Only yesterday Nutter, faced with a wide public outcry, said five of the 11 library branches scheduled to close permanently were instead on track to be taken over by private foundations, wealthy individuals, companies, and community development corporations.
Judge Fox said that the administration could not get around the fact that it was closing libraries, even if they are reopened as "knowledge centers" as Nutter described them, or in some other way "re-purposed" as Deputy Mayor Dr. Donald Schwarz said.
"Closed is closed," Fox said, who was unswayed by Nutter's plans for privately-funded programs at the library. She noted there was no written commitment to new plan. "I've had no other evidence than closure is closure."
Fox found that the library users and communities would suffer "irreparable harm" under Nutter's plan, and enjoined Nutter from closing the libraries without the council vote or a court order.
City Solicitor Shelley Smith said the city would appeal "as soon as possible," both because of the financial impact and the implications for mayoral authority. "It certainly impairs our ability to make decisions that historically the mayor has been empowered to make," Smith that.
In terms of saving the $8 million annually, Smith said, "That savings will be on hold and we'll have to go back and find it somewhere else. We're having a hard enough time bridging this gap," and noted that Nutter has warned the budget problem could get worse. "To have to find that money again, plus more, it's a big problem."
Councilman Bill Green, whose staff attorneys argued the case, said, "I'm hopeful now that we can work together with the mayor on an alternative to closures."
Yesterday, before she ruled, Fox heard testimony from library-closure opponents who filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent the mayor from shuttering the branches.
Irv Ackelsberg, who represents the plaintiffs, asked Fox to grant an order stopping Nutter from closing the libraries, arguing that a 1988 law prohibits mayors from closing public facilities without City Council's approval. Council members Bill Green, Jannie L. Blackwell and Jack Kelly also seek to stop the closings on similar grounds.
City Solicitor Shelley Smith, who represents the city and the mayor, argued that the 1988 law conflicts with the City Charter. In an apparent reference to Nutter's new plan, Smith wrote in a court filing that Nutter "hopes to find sufficient funds to keep the 11 library branches open for alternative uses," which would "render plaintiffs' complaints null."
Green declined through an aide to comment on Nutter's new plan, citing the litigation.
Ackelsberg said that as long as Nutter intended to close the libraries at the end of tomorrow, court action remained necessary.
"This all sounds like very good news, but I guess my immediate reaction is, 'Then why are you closing the buildings on Wednesday?' " Ackelsberg said. "If there are all these things being worked out then let's keep things the way they are until everything is worked out."
During yesterday's hearing, senior city attorney Gerald Wallerstein said the administration "worked their butts off" to make the library cuts as fair as possible, and to ensure that no one was more than two miles from the nearest library.
But plaintiffs who took the stand yesterday testified that the loss of their local libraries presented a greater deterrent than the distance would suggest.
Tanya Westbrook, a single parent of 12- and 16-year-old boys, lives across from the Logan branch of the Free Library.
She said the six- or seven-block walk to the nearest branch in Olney would take her 16-year-old son through the same neighborhood where two youths recently jumped him.
"It's not something that I feel is safe for my children," Westbrook said.
Losing the local library is particularly hard on homeschoolers, testified Maryanne McHale of Mayfair, who lives a 12-minute walk away from the Holmesburg branch in Northeast Philadelphia. Her homeschooled 10-year-old son often goes to the library after tae kwon do sessions nearby, and they use Holmesburg extensively, she said. They would have to take two buses to get to the nearest branches in Tacony or Torresdale, she said.