Monday, March 31, 2008

law library, pt. 3

Law library ignores free, easy services.
Part 3 of 4
By Sam Bhagwat
of the Valley Mirror

Cost per month: over $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.

And while the law library is moving again after drifting rudderless for years, the board is just starting to discuss basic problems related to service quality, oversight and publicity that have brought the library to where it is now.

Meanwhile, they seem reluctant to accept outside guidance.

Butte County law librarian John Zorbas has already helped some Glenn County residents over the phone, like an Orland resident who needed help with Social Security forms.

But when ibrary activist Dan Bailey relayed Mr. Zorbas’s willingness to come and offer advice, the law library board backed off, wanting to concentrate first on upgrading the slow, outdated computers.

“We need to get ourselves straight before we try to assimilate even more information,” argued Judge Angus Saint-Evens, a board trustee.

Some of Mr. Zorbas’s ideas for Butte County aren’t applicable to low-budget Glenn County: field trips to a physical building, a float and information booth at a public parade.

But others are free, easy, and have been neglected by Glenn County.

Mr. Zorbas mentions the state’s online “ask a law librarian” system; during business hours, anyone on the Internet can send text queries to California law librarians and get a real-time response.

Mr. Zorbas is enthusiastic about the system; when helping out, he recalls, the main problem he saw was overload: multiple people simultaneously sending him 200-word queries and expecting immediate responses.

Law library computers in Willows and Orland do not even provide a link to the website, on courtinfo.ca.gov/selfhelp/. Mr. Zorbas prefers helping over the phone, and is willing to assist other Glenn County residents, but no contact information is easily available to law library patrons here. (Mr. Zorbas’ work phone number is 538-7122)

“Law libraries are very unterritorial,” says Mr. Zorbas. “If a person wants help, they get help, no one cares what county you’re from.”

On a publicity level, Mr. Zorbas says that in Butte County court clerks, law enforcement, and Paradise public library staff all refer people to him.

Court executive officer Tina Burkhart says she’s heard her court clerks referring people to the law library, and Sheriff Larry Jones said that he personally has done so as well.

Still, at the end of the day, Butte County law library still receives 100 times as many visits as Glenn County — disproportionate for a county with only seven times as many people.

Other problems in Glenn County lay on the administrative level: no one’s been paying any attention.

In 2001, a set of 10,000 rarely-used law books that used to comprise the county law library were replaced with a computer system.

And then the books disappeared.

Accounts of what happened to them differed, and minutes of the board’s meetings, which might provide an answer, don’t exist — if the board even met to decide the issue.

Supervisor Keith Hansen, as chairman of the board of supervisors, has been formally a member of the law library board twice in the last 10 years — but Mr. Hansen doesn’t remember going to any meetings either year, saying he “(hasn’t) been on it for a long, long time.”

Today, it’s not books but money floating around: the law library is paying almost $4,000 a year to handle the administrative costs of the county’s A-87 accounting system.

This has been going on for at least two-and-a-half years. Yet it was concluded after a February board meeting that A-87 does not apply to the law library, because the law library is by statute independent from the county.

In that case, if the payment is legal it must be approved by the board — and the board has not met for four years. A financial report was prepared and delivered in December 2006 to the Board of Supervisors by law librarian and county counsel Tom Agin, but the error was not corrected and payments have continued since.

Without the board’s presence, minor oversight has occured as when Mr. Agin presented the financial report to supervisors (without the board’s backing). But no one — including Mr. Agin, who has “law librarian” as an official duty — acted similarly without the board’s authority to stop the payments.

Resolving such confusion is necessary for the law library to be effective.

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