The monthslong saga over the naming of a new $15 million D.C. Public Library branch in far Southwest has deepened, weeks ahead of a scheduled ribbon-cutting. The library’s board of trustees voted last Wednesday to undo a D.C. Council vote naming the facility after Lockridge, a community activist and school board member who died in January 2011.
That vote goes against the wishes of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who voiced support for the Lockridge naming shortly after his death, and the D.C. Council, which voted in December to overturn the board’s previous choice of Bellevue and add Lockridge’s name.
John Muller, a writer and friend of the blog who has followed the library controversy closely, reported on a lively debate at last Wednesday’s board meeting before voting to ditch Lockridge’s name and restore the name it had previously favored — simply “Bellevue,” after the name of the surrounding neighborhood.
Several activists urged the board to assert its independence and overrule the council, according to Muller. Dionne Brown, an advisory neighborhood commissioner and leader of the Friends of Bellevue Library group, cited the hard work in getting a new library, which Lockridge has opposed. “I want to see if you value the community where it’s located,” she told the board.
The board’s affirmation of the Bellevue name was ultimately in keeping with the wishes of board chairman John W. Hill Jr., who has been an outspoken critic of putting Lockridge’s name on the library.
Hill said Tuesday it was a “principled decision” for board members to reverse the Lockridge naming, but he is not confident the reversal will stick. He is expecting it to remain Bellevue at least until the scheduled June 13 ribbon-cutting, allowing him to attend without breaking an earlier pledge to skip the opening, and perhaps resign, should the new facility bear Lockridge’s name.
”I don’t know what the council will do or what the mayor will do,” he said. “My hope would be that we would move on from this, but I don’t know what they’re going to do. . . .I was pretty much assured that if this action was taken, it would be reversed.”
One board member, Richard H. Levy, abstained from voting. Though he’d previously supported the Bellevue name, he said defying the mayor and council would be “at best. . .a pyrrhic victory.”
“The mayor has his will and the council has its power, and we have to understand that,” he said Tuesday. “This is realpolitik and we have to be real. There’s a place for emotion, to be sure, and the Bellevue community is not happy, but we are not in a position to solve their problem.”
Just what exactly is the board’s position is a matter of some debate. The library’s congressional charter dates back to 1896, well before modern Home Rule. The board, now appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the D.C. Council, has the power to name libraries, while the council has the power to name public buildings generally.
Lockridge’s widow, Wanda Lockridge, said she was “disappointed” by the board’s vote and approached Gray’s office afterward. Mayoral lawyers, she said, are researching whether the board has the authority to overrule the council; Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro confirmed the mayor’s office is “working to review the board’s action.”
D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who has supported the Lockridge name, said Tuesday he might consider introducing emergency legislation at the council’s June 5 meeting to again overrule the library board ahead of the ribbon-cutting. (Brenda Richardson, a Barry aide who serves on the library board, left Wednesday’s meeting before the naming vote was taken.)
The Bellevue name, Barry said, “ain’t going to happen.”
But for the time being, it’s already happening. George Williams, a DCPL spokesman, said as far as the library administration is concerned, the branch will now be called the Bellevue library.
That sets up an uncomfortable scenario for the scheduled ribbon-cutting, where Lockridge’s family and their supporters on the council and in the mayor’s office will stand alongside Hill, Brown and other renaming foes.
“I really don’t know how it’s going to play out,” Lockridge said. “I wish it wasn’t as personal as some people are taking it.”