Public Comment

Peace and Justice Commission Reject’s Library’s Request for Waiver of Nuclear Free Berkeley Act

By Peter Warfield
Wednesday January 07, 2009 - 06:25:00 PM

Berkeley ‘s Peace and Justice Commission (P&J) has voted overwhelmingly to deny the Berkeley Public Library (BPL) a waiver of the Nuclear Free Berkeley Act.  

The vote was 7-1, with two abstentions, and it took place at the commission’s regular, first-Monday-of-the-month meeting Jan. 5.  

The library had sought the waiver so it could sign a contract with 3M to do maintenance on the library’s Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) checkout system, which the library purchased from Checkpoint Systems in 2004. According to the library, Checkpoint in 2008 turned over its sales and servicing functions to 3M, and 3M subsequently refused to sign standard City of Berkeley forms for contractors stating that they do not, and will not for the life of the contract, do “work for nuclear weapons.”  

The 3M company also did not sign the City’s standard “Oppressive States Compliance Statement,” confirming that it does not, and will not for the life of the contract, do business with oppressive states as defined by the City, but this was not on the agenda for the January 5 meeting. 

BPL’s Checkpoint system, like other RFID systems, suffers from a lack of interoperability. That means Checkpoint equipment can only read Checkpoint RFID tags, which are placed in books and materials, and Checkpoint tags can only be read by Checkpoint equipment. As a result, the library cannot obtain equipment and tags—or apparently even maintenance—from any other vendor.  

The library’s initial letter to the commission said failure to get a waiver would require it to obtain a new RFID system from another vendor at a cost likely to exceed the $643,000 it paid for the existing Checkpoint system, and it did not mention the possibility of converting to bar codes. However, when the public and P&J suggested a bar code system could be obtained instead of an RFID system, and might in the long run be cheaper, the library did not deny that bar codes were a reasonable alternative, instead making its primary objection that the cost would be high, based on its own estimates.  

Public comment opposing the waiver request came from 16 people who filled the area reserved for members of the public. Opposition speakers included Ying Lee, a current member of the Board of Library Trustees (BOLT), two former BPL librarians, and more than a dozen individuals and members of such organizations as Western States Legal Foundation, Mayors for Peace, East Bay Peace Action, East Bay Gray Panthers, an ecology group, SuperBOLD (Berkeleyans Organizing for Library Defense), and Library Users Association.  

Only a single public comment favored granting the waiver, and it came from Terry Powell, a current member of BOLT. Phoebe Sorgen, a P&J member, said an anonymous library worker had called her to oppose the waiver, saying additional library workers were opposed but “don’t dare come here and say so.”  

Commission members expressed dissatisfaction with information provided by Director of Library Services Donna Corbeil. She had sent P&J three letters in the last two months, and had spoken extensively at the commission’s previous meeting December 1, 2008 and at a subcommittee that met to have questions answered Dec. 11, 2008.  

Corbeil did not speak during public comment at the beginning of the meeting, and several times declined to answer questions posed by P&J members, saying she had provided answers in three memos. When Chair Bob Meola asked whether a possible conversion to bar codes could save money by leaving RFID tags in books and materials rather than removing them, Corbeil referenced her three memos and added, “I can’t really address that issue.”  

Andrea Segall, a retired librarian and former union shop steward, said of Library Director Corbeil’s written answers to P&J questions, “some are erroneous and some are evasive.” Segall said repetitive stress injuries were not reduced [as promised with installation of RFID], and an effort to convert from RFID technology to bar codes, if undertaken, would not be as time consuming as the one to two years estimated by Corbeil. Segall said the library “can function very well without RFID.”  

Segall said library staff members “were forced to make it [RFID] work,” and said there is a “climate for staff not to speak up.”  

The seven commissioners voting to reject the library’s request for a waiver were Chair Bob Meola, Megan Winkelman, Rita Maran, George Lippman, Phoebe Sorgen, Diana Bohn, and Wendy Kenin. The single vote supporting the library’s request came from Jonathan Wornick, and the two abstentions came from Rabbi Jane Litman and Michael Sherman.  

The commission’s action to deny a waiver of the law so that the library could “contract with 3M Corporation for maintenance of the RFID system” included a three-page Recommendation that ends as follows: 

“In conclusion, the Nuclear Free Berkeley Act and the Oppressive States ordinance, the former supported by an overwhelming majority of Berkeley citizens in a direct popular vote, and the latter expressing the deep sentiment of the community for a just and peaceful world, should not be lightly overridden. 

“The decision about whether to waive the provisions of these laws must take into consideration the purpose of the service or goods supported by the proposed contract. Greater leeway may be given to critical or emergency human services. Mere matters of convenience hold less weight in comparison to Berkeley’s heritage in the forefront of human rights. 

“The commission expresses its concern that the library’s request does not even envisage a sunset period for the contract with 3M, whether to find a non-nuclear vendor for the present system or an alternative technology that does not require such a vendor. The commission recommends a denial of the waiver as requested.”  

The authority to make a final decision about whether to grant a waiver rests with the Berkeley City Council. Letters and calls to the City Council are likely to have a useful effect on that outcome.  


Peter Warfield is Executive Director of Library Users Association, which works to help make better libraries for all.