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Decision No. 12,939

Appeal of PETER IANNONE, MICHELLE CALIENDO and DEBORAH ANN USBECK, individually and on behalf of all residents of the Town of Smithtown, from action of the trustees of the Commack Public Library District, the Smithtown Public Library and the Suffolk Cooperative Library System relating to denial of free direct access.

Decision No. 12,939

(June 8, 1993)

Bruce H. Seger, Esq., attorney for petitioners

Cahn, Wishod, Wishod & Lamb, Esqs., attorneys for respondent Commack Public Library, Richard C. Cahn and Robert H. Cohen, Esqs., of counsel

Pelletreau and Pelletreau, Esqs., attorneys for respondent Suffolk Cooperative Library System, Kevin A. Seaman, Esq., of counsel

SOBOL, Commissioner.--Petitioners, residents of the Town of Smithtown and the Commack Union Free School District, challenge the policy of the Commack Public Library District, the Suffolk Cooperative Library System and the trustees of the Smithtown Public Library of charging an out-of-district fee to residents of the Town of Smithtown who seek to borrow books and materials from the Commack Public Library. The appeal must be dismissed.

This is the second time that a party has challenged the Commack Public Library District's imposition of a fee upon Smithtown residents for direct library access. In Appeal of the Town of Smithtown, 28 Ed Dept Rep 337, I dismissed the appeal for lack of standing and failure to join the Suffolk Cooperative Library System as a necessary party.

As in the prior appeal, petitioners in this case contend that the boundaries of the Commack Public Library District are contiguous with the boundaries of former Union Free School District No. 10 (now the Commack Union Free School District), so that Smithtown residents who reside in the school district are entitled to use the Commack library free of charge. They claim that they have been unlawfully denied the opportunity to vote at district meetings and elections on matters pertaining to the library, and that the charging of fees to Smithtown residents by the Commack Public Library violates '90.3(b) of the Regulations of the Commissioner of Education. Section 90.3(b) requires a public library system to provide in its plan of service for free direct access by all residents of the library system, with certain limited exceptions.

Respondents contend that the appeal must be dismissed on procedural grounds, including lack of jurisdiction under Education Law '310, an issue not raised in the prior appeal.

There is only one provision in Education Law '310 that gives the Commissioner of Education jurisdiction to review the actions of library trustees, as opposed to the actions of local school officials or a school district meeting. Under Education Law '310(5), an appeal may be taken from any action:

5. By any trustees of any school library concerning such library, or the books therein, or the use of such books.

In Appeal of Moore, 20 Ed Dept Rep 27, the Commissioner dismissed a challenge to an election conducted by the trustees of the Roosevelt Public Library District for lack of jurisdiction. The Commissioner found that the Roosevelt Public Library District, though coterminous with a school district, was a special district closely controlled by the town board and was not a school district public library. The Commissioner consequently dismissed the appeal, finding that his jurisdiction under Education Law '310(5) and (6) only extends to actions by and elections of trustees of school district public libraries, and that there is no statute conferring quasi-judicial jurisdiction over disputes involving a library district.

To decide the threshold issue of jurisdiction, I must examine the nature of the Commack Public Library. It was originally established in 1969 pursuant to Chapter 1009 of the Laws of 1966, as amended by Chapter 744 of the Laws of 1969, by vote of the qualified voters of Union Free School District No. 10 residing within the Town of Huntington. Chapter 834 of the Laws of 1971 subsequently created:

. . .in the town of Huntington, Suffolk county, a public library district to be known as the Commack public library district, which shall include all the territory within union free school district number ten of the towns of Huntington and Smithtown, Suffolk county, situate in the unincorporated area of the town of Huntington.

The Commack Public Library District replaced the public library and was granted an absolute charter by the Board of Regents on May 25, 1973.

Under Chapter 834, a library district is deemed an improvement district within the meaning of the Town Law, and is to be governed by those provisions of the Education Law relating to public libraries. The library budget is voted upon, and library trustees are elected, by those qualified voters of UFSD No. 10 who are residents of the library district. The library trustees annually file a statement of the appropriations for library purposes with the town of Huntington, and the town assesses, levies and collects library taxes. The town of Huntington has authority to issue bonds or notes for library buildings and did issue serial bonds in 1975 for the construction of a library building on property owned by the town.

A school district public library, on the other hand, is a public library established by a school district pursuant to Education Law '255(1) and supported by the taxpayers of a school district pursuant to Education Law '259(1). Like the Roosevelt Public Library District in Appeal of Moore, supra, the Commack Public Library District was created by Special Act of the Legislature and is a special district closely affiliated with town government. Its territory includes only a portion of the Commack Union Free School District and its only relationship with the school district is that library elections and budget votes are conducted at annual or special school district meetings. I conclude, therefore, that the Commack Public Library District is not a school district public library or a "school library" within the meaning of Education Law '310(5). Under the holding of Appeal of Moore, supra, this appeal must therefore be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.

While the appeal must be dismissed on procedural grounds, I recognize that the underlying dispute concerning free direct library access involves an important policy issue broader than this appeal that needs to be resolved in a different forum.