Interior of the Claremont branch library

Just months before renovations begin on two of Berkeley’s branch libraries, the Neighborhood Library Campaign announced that it has raised more than $1 million  — almost a third of its $3.5 million goal — for the restoration work.

The funds will be used to repair the oak furniture in the Claremont and North branch libraries, buy new desks, chairs and tables, change out fluorescent lights, and acquire other equipment for the North and West branches, according to Linda Schacht Gage, the chair of the Neighborhood Library capital campaign.

“It shows that the community is behind us,” said Gage.

The $1 million came from a group of about 100 people, and the campaign will now branch out more broadly to ask for support. The Friends of the Berkeley Public Library donated $150,000 and the filmmaker Saul Zaentz contributed $25,000, she said. Then, in late November, one donor gave $200,000 and another contributed $250,000, putting the fund over the $1 million mark. Both will remain anonymous for a while, said Gage.

But the good fundraising news is shadowed slightly by recent challenges to the city’s plans to renovate its four branch libraries by 2013. A group calling itself Concerned Library Users filed a lawsuit against Berkeley in September (you can download a PDF of the nine-page filing), contending that funds from Measure FF cannot be used to tear down and rebuild the South and West branches, which the city wants to do.

Measure FF, which city voters passed in November 2008, specified the city would use the $26 million in raised funds to “renovate, expand, and make seismic and access improvements,” to the library’s four branches, according to Susan Brandt-Hawley, the lawyer for Concerned Library Users. There was no wording in the measure that talked about tearing down and rebuilding the branches, she said. The group is seeking an injunction to stop the city from spending Measure FF funds on any demolition.

“The use of bond funds for demolition is contrary to the language of Measure FF,” said Brandt-Hawley.

City Attorney Zach Cowan declined to speak to Berkeleyside about the lawsuit. But in June he told the Berkeley City Council that the city could not use Measure FF funds to tear down the South and West branches. Money from another city fund would have to be used, he said.

Berkeley plans to close and remodel the Claremont and North branches starting in the spring of 2011. Once they are completed in 2012, the city plans to tear down and replace the South and West branches.

Concerned Library Users is also suing the city to force it to do an Environmental Impact Report on the impacts of tearing down the South and West branches, since their demolition will affect a historic or potentially historic resource. That aspect of the suit may be settled soon because the city is in the process of finishing an EIR, said Brandt-Hawley.

Concerned Library Users is also suing the city over its summer action to allow libraries to seek a use permit, rather than a variance, for the branch library reconstruction. The city should have done an Environmental Impact Report on the new law since it made it easier to demolish historic structures, according to Brandt-Hawley.

Concerned Library Users was formed in August after the Berkeley City Council adopted the new law. The size and composition of the group is not clear. The only person whose name was attached to the group in the lawsuit is Judith Epstein, who lives in the Claremont area of Berkeley.

Gage said that Epstein has never come to express her concerns to the Library Board and she suspects that she is the sole member of Concerned Library Users. In the past, Epstein has expressed opposition to the library’s use of RFID devices on books, said Gage. Those are the barcodes in books and DVDs that trace an object’s whereabouts.

“The real question is: what is she after?” said Gage.

Brandt-Hawley said Concerned Library Users is a real group, but did not want to provide any details about them. “They have a right to privacy,” said Brandt-Hawley. “This is a controversial matter and they want their privacy protected. It is a group. It is not just Judith Epstein. It is a group of people who care a lot about the libraries. It is inappropriate to assume it is just one person.”

The group is also appealing a Zoning Board decision that the city only needed to obtain a use permit, rather than a variance, to remodel the Claremont and North branch libraries. The City Council will take up that issue at its December 7 meeting.

The bigger question for Gage, who has been deeply involved in raising funds for the Berkeley Public Library for years, is whether the lawsuit will drain funds from Measure FF money and make it difficult to finish the renovation of the branches. If money has to be spent on lawyers rather than remodeling, there might not be enough to go around.

“There is not a lot of wiggle room,” said Gage. “$26 million will not go a long way.”

UPDATE 12/1/2010: Brandt-Hawley called Berkeleyside to say that Concerned Library Users and the City of Berkeley have come to a settlement on one portion of the lawsuit. CLU had contended that the city should have done an EIR before adopting a new law permitting the libraries to get a use permit, rather than a variance, to proceed. Brandt-Hawley said she could not release any details because the City Council has to vote on the settlement on Dec. 13. However, the deal will allow the renovation of the Claremont and North branches to move forward.

CLU’s appeal on the ZAB ruling has now been moved to Dec. 14. (And wouldn’t be necessary once the two parties sign a settlement agreement.)

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...