I love libraries. So it scared me to death -- an emergency meeting of Los Angeles' board of library commissioners? Great Dewey Decimal System, what kind of emergency? A terrorist threat? A sudden new hemorrhage in the bleeding-out called the state budget deficit?
The single, so-urgent item on the board's agenda yesterday was this: approving what the L.A. City Council had voted for Friday, and dedicating the yet-unfinished El Sereno branch library to the late Lloyd Monserratt. And, with a skimpy quorum of three, the board unanimously did so.
Once I calmed down from library-crisis panic, I wondered, just what was the hurry?
And who, you may be asking, was Lloyd Monserratt, that the library should be so quickly dedicated to him (not named for him, but dedicated to him)?
I can't answer the first question. Monserratt has been dead only five days. His funeral hasn't been scheduled, so far as I know. And the El Sereno library won't even open for at least a year.
As for the second question, he was the chief of staff to L.A. council member Nick Pacheco. He'd worked with council members Ed Reyes and Janice Hahn, with a school board member and on other elections and causes.
For an hour Friday, the day after Monserratt died unexpectedly after surgery, at age 36, every council member save Nate Holden spoke of Monserratt, beloved from the Spring Street steps to the Lindbergh Beacon, for his energy, his dedication, his passion, his smile. And then the council invoked Rule 23 to speed this matter "in loving memory of Lloyd Monserratt."
Congressman Xavier Becerra told the three-out-of-five-member library board movingly that while Monserratt "may not be the most famous person out there, I'll guarantee there are people who'll say he gave them life," and so the city should give him this honor.
Monserratt won election as UCLA student body president in 1988, only to have the results thrown out over disputed charges that he didn't have enough credits to qualify as a candidate. A second election without Monserratt on the ballot was enlivened by slugfests, ballot-box chaos. Meetings about campus racism followed.
He volunteered with a phone bank operation when he put through an order from Xavier Becerra's 2001 mayoral campaign that turned out to be the notorious "Gloria Morina" fake phone calls slamming candidate Antonio Villaraigosa. Pacheco said that, at his urging, Monserratt and his lawyer took what he knew to the D.A.
His mother, one friend told the library board, will be "so happy" whenever she sees his name in the library. So will his friends, I have no doubt. If that were the only consideration, we might all be so remembered.
Are our memories so shallow we don't remember the fuss over putting a name anywhere on a public building? In the mid-1990s, Mayor Richard Riordan's library board hung a "for sale" sign on branch libraries -- write a check for a million bucks and we'll name a branch library for you. Two million and you get a regional library.
The price tag was still on the new Watts branch library when the locals rightly and righteously demanded that the library bear the name of one who had enriched the place far more than a million dollars could.
For 40 years, Alma Reaves Woods bought books at thrift stores to give to children, checked out library books on her own card and handed them out to kids in the projects, went door-to-door for the Watts library bond issue.
The publicity embarrassed the board into changing its mind. But it still has no hard-and-fast naming policy.
The Sherman Oaks branch library still bears the eternal, burning name of Martin Pollard, whose claim on civic perpetuity is one year on the library board, ownership of a string of car dealerships, a lot of big campaign donations and palling around with Mayor Sam Yorty.
A parting gift to Riordan was having the Central Library named for him. Those howls about impropriety were mostly over his own appointees' casting the votes.
This was Jim Hahn's library board voting yesterday -- well, three-fifths of it. Rita Walters wasn't there, but I wonder how Rita Walters would have voted, considering that, as a council member, she'd led the charge to keep Riordan's name off the Central Library.
And haste makes precedent. Who now does the city say no to? Of L.A.'s 68 public libraries, only two bear names of dedication (a different mark of distinction from outright naming, a la Pollard and Riordan). The Ben Franklin branch in Boyle Heights is dedicated to Ed Roybal, the congressman and the 20th century's first Latino City Council member, godfather to local Latino politics. And the Baldwin Hills branch is dedicated to the late Julian Dixon, a pioneering black congressman who brought home millions in transportation money.
Now the name of Lloyd Monserratt joins that pair. Beloved as he evidently was, is he really in that league? With his early death, much of him remains promise unfulfilled.
Some people will yell, "Lay off, the man's not even in his grave." Maybe that's the point -- in the sway of bereavement, the council, and the board, may have voted their hearts and not their heads. It's good to know they have the one, but they also need to use the other.
Anyway, why have libraries become the billboards for honoring the political crowd?
Monserratt was an accomplished political being.
Five years ago, he was heading off to Illinois, to teach seminars to show Latinos the political ropes. Five months ago he was in the Bay Area, doing the same thing.
His world was the cut and thrust of politics, not the hush of the library. Putting his name in El Sereno is preaching to the choir.
If the council feels so strongly about Monserratt, put his name, not in one City Council district, but at the hub of all of them, in City Hall, where the power is, where school tours and tourists from all over the city and the world will see it.