Monday, March 31, 2008

law library, pt. 2

Rudderless for years, law library suffers
Part two of a series
By Sam Bhagwat
of the Valley Mirror

Cost per month: More than $800. Users per month: 4.5. Their satisfaction: very low.

Those are the vital statistics of the county’s law library system, two computers in Willows and one in Orland, hooked up to the legal research site LexisNexis.

But the question isn’t really “what happened?”

It’s “What didn’t happen?”

The board governing the law library is reconvening after several years of inactivity. Today, the law library in neighboring Butte County receives 100 times more visitors than Glenn County, and the board is in violation of numerous state regulations.

Rule: boards must meet regularly each month.

Reality: the board didn’t meet with a quorum for at least four years.

Rule: boards must elect a secretary, to “keep records and full minutes in writing.”

Reality: nope. Minutes don’t exist for meetings held before this year — they weren’t in the files of the county counsel, who is also the law librarian, or the board of supervisors’ office. Staff at the Superior Court Friday said they didn’t know if they had files on the law library.

Rule: boards must make a yearly report to the board of supervisors, along with a financial report “showing all receipts and disbursements of money.”

Reality: a review of the last 10 years of supervisors’ meeting minutes shows only two financial reports. One was given by County Counsel Tom Agin without the board’s authority; the other was given by then-County Counsel Belinda Blacketer, whether she had the board’s authority is not clear. Neither report included other details.

Some of these requirements may seem excessive, designed for larger counties. Nonetheless, it applies to all counties.

Law library board members aren’t paid, so monthly, hour-long meetings attended by five lawyers who bill at $100 hourly would cost the lawyers $6,000 annually. Call that public service, in lieu of pro bono work.

That seems a large overhead for administering a fund with $10,000 annual expenses, especially when former chairwoman and chief of the Glenn County Branch of the state’s Department of Child Support Services Carroll Ragland opined at a meeting that “‘it’s a problem meeting monthly because we don’t do anything,’” according to law library devotee Dan Bailey.

(When Ms. Ragland was reached and told the MIRROR wanted to talk about the law library, she immediately asked how we obtained her direct line — we used Google — before declining comment.)

But when no one in charge knows what’s been going on for the last 10 years, it’s clear than unless at least some attention is paid, the system won’t work.

Interviewed for a related story in May 2007, County Counsel Tom Agin said that the board’s inactivity was not a problem because “nobody has complained about the libraries."

Though Mr. Agin was on vacation and could not be contacted for this article, executive secretary Penny Arnold confirmed that the county counsel’s office received few complaints about the current LexisNexis system.

One wonders how much communication is going on, then.

Three librarians in Willows, one in Orland, and recorder’s office staff interviewed for last Saturday’s article documented extremely rare usage and frustrated patrons, extending back three or four years.

Talking to two Willows librarians, all this reporter had to do was mention the subject, and the women launched into extended complaints about the law library system.

High cost and low usage isn’t a new problem: serving as law librarian in 1979, Judge August Saint-Evens remembered around 10,000 volumes stored in the judges’ chambers, the courtroom and the jury room, and around 200 arriving every year. The cost was “astronomical.” There was “very, very little” traffic, all lawyers.

When former County Counsel Belinda Blacketer took the job in 2001, she disposed of the books.

(Where the books went is not clear. Available records don’t say. No one would buy them. Dep. Admin. Officer Sandy Soeth, looking around the basement, saw a few books from the’70s and ’80s in the courthouse basement and thinks the rest were thrown out. Judge Saint-Evens heard they had been packed up and given to a university library.)

Instead of the books, a CD-based system from Westlaw was used for the next two years — and it didn’t work so well either.

Mrs. Arnold recalled that it would constantly have problems, which she would have to sort out. Few people used it: again, mostly lawyers.

“It was a nightmare,” Mrs. Arnold said.

It’s not clear that has changed.

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