Council Lifts Policy, Names Watts Library for Volunteer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Evoking exuberant applause and a couple of heartfelt "amens" from the audience, the Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday named the new Watts branch library after a local volunteer, making an exception to a city policy that reserves that honor for donors of $1 million or more.

In honoring Alma Reaves Woods, known in her community as "the lady who built the library" for four decades of activism, several lawmakers also called for gutting the million-dollar policy--a rule the council endorsed just a year ago.

"What hypocrites! Better late than never. This policy should never have been put on the books in the first place," Councilman Nate Holden, who voted against the measure last year, said as his colleagues rose one after the other to endorse Woods. "This is just a clear example of how out of step we are with the public. We should be leading you, but instead we're following."

But Woods, who did not attend Tuesday's council session, showed no bitterness over the incident, crying out in joy when a council member telephoned with the news after the vote.

"I don't think I'll even sleep tonight, I'm so excited. I could walk from here to Pasadena," Woods said later in a telephone interview. "I am just delighted and gratified that others saw what we had tried to do, recognized it, appreciated it. I can just barely contain myself."

After a Times article Sunday highlighting the Library Commission's refusal last week to consider naming the branch for Woods until it completes a broader review of the naming guidelines, scores of Watts residents went to City Hall to urge the council to override that decision in time for Saturday's grand opening of the $3-million facility. They held up homemade signs with hearts under Woods' name, and clapped practically every time she was mentioned.

"She has given over $1 million of her time and energy," said Ann Miller, a member of Friends of the Watts Library, which sells cookies, clothes and books to raise funds. "You have the power to bring about the change."

Indeed, the council utilized its rarely invoked authority to remove jurisdiction from any of the city's 40 civilian commissions in order to honor Woods. Further, while the Library Commission is already conducting a study of its naming policies--the one-year agreement to enforce the million-dollar provision recently expired--Councilwoman Rita Walters introduced a motion Tuesday asking the council to supersede that move as well and write its own guidelines for naming all public buildings that would serve a wider group of potential honorees.

"We have to . . . dispel the erroneous impression that the names of city facilities are for sale to the highest bidder," wrote Walters, who supported the million-dollar policy last year as a means of raising funds for the libraries. Naming "should be based on appropriate reasons such as the achievements, service and contributions of the individual. It should not be based solely on dollars paid."

Mayor Richard Riordan said Tuesday that he supports naming the Watts branch for Woods, and said each instance should be reviewed on "an ad hoc basis." Regarding the broader policy question, the mayor said the council should back off until the commission, which he appointed, finishes its review.

"We have a commission system in the city. They should wait and see what the commission does," Riordan said. "The commission has to balance between sweat, labor and trying to get resources to improve libraries."

The commission announced Monday that it planned to drop the million-dollar policy.

Traditionally, the city has named libraries either for the neighborhoods in which they are located, or after literary or historic figures such as Mark Twain or Pio Pico. In an effort to spur fund-raising, commissioners changed the policy in 1994 so libraries would instead be named for philanthropists who give $1 million (or $2 million for a regional library).

When the council reviewed the policy last May, lawmakers who were fearful of corporate sponsorship added a prohibition on promoting alcohol and tobacco products via libraries. To safeguard against wealthy communities getting the fanciest facilities, they insisted that 25% of the donation go to the specific branch, the rest to the neediest libraries citywide.

But at that time, the question of shutting out people who lack that kind of money got little attention.

"It was shortsighted," said Walters, who heads the committee overseeing libraries. "Hopefully, this time around, the needs of the entire city will be addressed, including heroes who do endless work and usually go unrecognized."

Councilman Rudy Svorinich Jr., who represents Watts and led the charge to name the library for Woods, also voted for the million-dollar policy last year, and continued to say Tuesday that the monetary contributions should remain one of several criteria for honorees.

"Probably at that time we should have given it a little more thought," he said.

Some lawmakers said they thought their action last year was simply to add donors to the list of people who could have their names on libraries--not bar others from being included. They noted that no one has since come forth with $1 million.

"This rigid interpretation of the policy is one of the most ridiculous things I've seen," said Councilman Richard Alarcon, who voted for the policy last year. "The Library Commission could have acted much more proactively. They hid behind the policy. We absolutely don't want a commission that's unable to think on its feet."

Of the five commissioners, two are out of town this week. A third, Julia Simmons, joined the panel after the policy was adopted and has stated publicly that she does not support it. The others, Lucy McCoy and Olivia Cueva-Fernandez, did not return telephone calls Tuesday seeking comment, though commission President Cueva-Fernandez released a written statement:

"We heartily congratulate Alma Reaves Woods. . . . She is a person who feels strongly that public libraries are an important community asset," she wrote. "We look forward to the grand opening of our newest branch facility this Saturday and urge all who value libraries to attend."

Woods, 71, will be there, up on the dais as mistress of ceremonies as well as honoree. Her lifetime of voluntarism began with lugging library books to pass out to children at the Nickerson Gardens housing project and led to campaigning for the 1989 bond issue that built the library.

"Anything worth having, and anything worth getting, is worth working for," is the lesson she draws from the struggle, Woods said. "Keep on. Perseverance, patience, fortitude--yes, that's very important."

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