Philadelphia's public libraries can no longer open without a guard present, according to an internal Free Library e-mail obtained by The Inquirer.

The Free Library says it's to ensure staff and patron safety but unions and library advocates believe it's an effort to find new ways to close libraries.

For years, Philadelphia libraries have opened without guards present, library union officials said.

The new rule, like the library's recently instituted requirement to have four workers present to open a branch instead of the customary three, is seen by some in the contentious fight over libraries as another attempt by the Nutter administration to find a way to close branches. The change was effective as of Tuesday.

"Every 15 minutes it's a new story," Amy Dougherty, executive director of the Friends of the Free Library, said yesterday.

Sandy Horrocks, a spokeswoman for library director Siobhan Reardon, disagreed. She said the change was made only to keep libraries safe and clean. (Guards also clean branches.)

She added that the library system was hampered because it is down 11 guards. When the administration tried to close 11 libraries late last year, it transferred those guards to other city duties.

A judge compelled the administration to keep the libraries open. But Horrocks said the guards could not be recalled because the library had to slash its budget by 20 percent and could no longer afford them.

Lately, Mayor Nutter has been discussing the importance of safety and cleanliness in his public remarks about libraries.

Dougherty said she believed he was laying the groundwork for this new policy about guards.

"My feeling was he was stressing those issues as an excuse" to close libraries, she said.

The new policy raised eyebrows among union people.

"As a matter of safety, we have been trying for years to get the city to open libraries with guards present," said Kahim Boles, president of AFSCME District Council 47, Local 2187, which represents librarians. "But we could never get them to do it."

Asked whether he believed Nutter was simply worrying about safety, Boles said, "If he was a safety-conscious mayor, this would have happened a while ago. This just seems suspect to me."

Boles said he believed the new rule was a way for the administration to circumvent the judge's order to keep libraries open.

Further confusing the matter is an apparent disagreement between the library and the union.

Though acknowledging that libraries have opened without guards, Horrocks said there was always a guard on the way to staff those branches.

Not true, according to Cathy Scott, president of AFSCME District Council 47. "Libraries were allowed to open without guards coming," she said last night. "In fact, we went through long periods of time in which libraries had no guards at all."

One immediate result of the changed policy was that the Fumo branch closed early Wednesday night (4 p.m. as opposed to 8 p.m.) because there was no overtime to pay the guard on duty to stay, Horrocks said yesterday.

Dougherty said the administration had only itself to blame for the guard shortage.

"Why were the guards transferred to begin with?" she asked. "Who created this situation in the first place?"

She said the cost of the 11 guards was a little more than $300,000.

"For lack of just $300,000, we have to close libraries again?" she asked.

City Councilman Bill Green said the new rule was "not rational decision-making."

He suggested the library transfer guards in neighborhoods where crime is low to fill in for the 11 lost guards.

Meanwhile, the administration awaits word on its motion filed last week to ask the judge in the library case to dismiss the original lawsuit that stopped the city from closing 11 libraries.

Court observers see it as a long shot because the administration is asking a judge to dismiss a lawsuit after she has already ruled against the administration in that suit.

No action on the motion is expected until next month.

Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.