Saying he is "taking up the cause of the people," Philadelphia legal-services attorney Irv Ackelsberg announced yesterday his intention to file a class-action lawsuit to prevent the Nutter administration from closing 11 libraries.
Ackelsberg said in a news conference outside the imperiled branch in Logan that he was acting on behalf of seven plaintiffs who are library users.
He added that he would not file the suit in Common Pleas Court until Tuesday, in the hope that Mayor Nutter would "reconsider" before then. Ackelsberg said he sent a copy of the suit to City Solicitor Shelley Smith.
The suit is based on a city ordinance that states in part: "No city-owned facility shall be closed . . . without specific approval . . . from City Council."
"We're taking the mayor to court to compel him to follow the law," Ackelsberg said.
Last night, Smith said it was the city's contention that the ordinance is "invalid" because it runs contrary to the City Charter, essentially the "constitution" of the city.
Smith said that the charter gives the mayor authority to close the libraries if he deems it necessary.
By writing the ordinance 20 years ago, City Council overstepped the powers granted to it by the charter, Smith said.
Whether Smith is correct legally may be for a judge to decide.
Politically, however, there appears to be little will from Council to follow Ackelsberg's lead and use the ordinance to stop the closures of the libraries, which the Nutter administration said it plans to do by Jan. 1. No Council member had joined the lawsuit yesterday.
"I decided that the suit was not the way I want to proceed," said Councilman Bill Green, who has emerged as Council's leading opponent to the closures. He added that he thought "the case has merit."
Asked whether he has new plans to stop the shutterings, Green said he has "nothing to talk about now."
At the Logan library yesterday, some of the plaintiffs in the case spoke out, including Tiara Fuller, a ninth grader at the Parkway Northwest School for Peace and Social Justice in Mount Airy.
She uses the Cohen/Ogontz branch, also set for closure. "I cannot imagine being able to pursue my studies and my dreams without Cohen/Ogontz," she said.
Similarly, Susan Feenan, another plaintiff and a user of the imperiled Fishtown branch, said that neighborhoods were "about to lose the heart of their community." She added, "The libraries are alive. Please don't kill them."
Also on hand to support Ackelsberg were several nonplaintiffs, including the Rev. Ellis Washington, president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia.
"Libraries need to remain open so children have access to the computers they need so desperately," he said. "Our constituency demands that something be said."
Cathy Scott, president of District Council 47 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, also spoke, saying that she is helping form a coalition of unions to fight the closures of libraries and pools, which she called "shortsighted and counterproductive."
Ackelsberg, who once ran for City Council, said he's filing the suit because, as a 30-year resident of the city, he is accustomed to "taking up the causes of people and communities. This one touched my heart."
Library advocates have asked the Nutter administration to cut hours to all libraries to keep the 11 open. Many public schools don't have libraries and students use the facilities regularly, advocates say.
Library officials have said that cutting hours could jeopardize state certification of branches. And the city, which says it needs to shutter libraries to fill an $8 million budget gap, has indicated that the library system should be shrunk to serve a city whose population has been diminishing.