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Libraries serve as community gathering spots — sanctuaries from stress and society's cutthroat culture. Yet well before the first shovels hit the dirt, just picking where Salt Lake City's two newest branches will go has proved contentious, divisive and, perhaps, politicized.

For years, new libraries have been planned in the Glendale and Marmalade neighborhoods. Much of the funding is in place or planned as a future tax increase, and multiple forums have been staged to harness public input. The Library Board has even picked its preferred spots.

But the messy — some insiders say "flawed" — selection process has created as many questions as answers.

Board members heading each site search recently quit those committees in protest. Some Marmalade businessmen maintain their site was ignored in "scandalous" fashion. And critics inside and out of City Hall insist the Mayor's Office itself tried to sink the Glendale location overwhelmingly favored by residents.

Neither library decision is final but both soon will be. The City Council is expected to vote on the respective locations in June.

Glendale: Eleventh-hour intrigue • The list started big. But after public polls repeatedly called for a branch in the "heart" of Glendale, a steering committee set its sights on a run-down residential patch at 1250 W. 1330 South. After all, the so-called "North property" is close to three schools and ideally situated as a community hub.

The heads of the Glendale schools rave about the location. West-side Councilman Van Turner is a backer. City real-estate bosses like the price. And the spot just off California Avenue and Concord Street ranks No. 1 with residents.

"There's unbelievable chances to create partnerships and connections," said Elizabeth Gupta, a Library Board member and new site committee chairwoman.

But late last year, a fresh candidate emerged alongside the Jordan River on Glendale's border with Poplar Grove. The parcel, recently bought by the city at about 1100 West and 900 South, was pushed by Frank Gray, Mayor Ralph Becker's director of community and economic development. Gray said a library there would provide the perfect attraction for a streetcar route envisioned along 900 South.

"I felt it was important for them to be able to evaluate it," Gray said. "I don't think there were major environmental hurdles."

But the steering committee felt sabotaged. Conservationists cried foul. And Library Director Beth Elder — who initially warmed to the site — later warned the public process would have to be reset to consider the river location, delaying construction up to 18 months.

"Bluntly, the Glendale process has been problematic," board member Mark Alvarez, who stepped down in protest as the original committee chairman, told his colleagues. "There has been maybe too close a relationship with the city administration."

Alvarez supports the North property, where the new library would open in early 2013.

Still, the river site has become a sort of crusade for board member Ila Rose Fife. She argues the public was frozen out of debate on the late entry and calls pressure to keep the library in central Glendale "political."

"That's terrible not to hear from the people," said Fife, noting Becker and Gray assured her construction at 900 South could start immediately. "They said, 'You can start tomorrow.' "

Even so, most on the board remain uncomfortable endorsing a site so close to the existing Chapman branch at 577 S. 900 West. Chapman is a Carnegie-style building that won't be abandoned but, due to its small size, will have its role redefined.

"What a mess — I have to be honest," said Luana Chilelli, a new board member, who added that she is quitting in June. "There's a lot of things that probably fell through the cracks, and now we have to make a decision with what we know."

Marmalade: Renovate or build anew? • The search for a new Marmalade branch seemed quieter — until lately.

A development group affiliated with Northgate Park, the former St. Mark's Hospital at 310 W. 800 North, alleges public feedback was ignored and "the fix is in" for the city-owned site at 270 W. 500 North.

In a board meeting this month, Northgate's Robert Walton said he never heard any library response after submitting more than 300 signatures last year advocating the old building across the street from Warm Springs Park.

"It would have been nice to have seen that before we made the site selection," Ella Olsen, a board member and new steering committee chairwoman told him. "We did not hear from any of them. The site that we chose was the clear favorite."

Olsen said she never saw any petition.

"Then that is a scandal because it was given last summer," said Walton, declaring the episode "outrageous."

Board President Hugh Gillilan said the preferred location, just off the 600 North freeway exit, is a "done deal." The opening is planned for early 2014.

Upset with the award-winning library system's overall direction, and the Marmalade process, former selection committee chairman John Becker resigned from the Library Board late last year.

Besides hosting open houses, the committee conducted site tours earlier this year. On the city's website forum, the 500 North parcel won majority praise for its proximity to schools and homes.

"It is visible and could help revitalize and help re-imagine the original development planned for this site," resident Patrick McLaughlin wrote. "The real bugaboo with this site and others on 300 West is 300 West. It is a terrible street for pedestrians, simply God awful."

Sites set in stone? • Last year, the City Council approved a tax increase to cover construction of the $8 million Glendale branch. On Tuesday, library officials will ask the council for a similar hike (in 2012-13) to cover Marmalade's $8.2 million building. What's more, the library wants two additional tax hikes — another for Glendale and one in 2014 for Marmalade operating costs. Each would cost the average home¬≠owner an estimated $5 a year, $15 total.

Council Chairwoman Jill Remington Love said lawmakers are committed to seeing both branches built within the next few years. So far, she said, no council member has objected to either preferred site despite the controversies. "I don't think we're going to get lobbied any more than we've been lobbied," she said. "I'd be very surprised if the council would want to change direction." In straw polls, the council has backed the board sites.

But west-side activist Michael Clara argues the "integrity" of the public process was questionable. "I don't think it's a done deal," Clara said. "They're going to have to answer for the process."

SLC library opens its books

Under pressure to improve transparency, the Salt Lake City Public Library has vowed to post Library Board meeting minutes and audio on its website "as quickly as possible."

Library officials say it is reasonable to assume the information will be available within 72 hours. But wider access — including a recommendation for board members to post blogs, lengthy profiles and possibly personal email addresses — will be reviewed during the board's June retreat. New board member Mimi Charles wants all materials the board has in its meetings made available to the public as well.

"I want to be very available to the public, but this just seems very involved," said board member Elizabeth Gupta, calling some of the proposals "task lists."

Board member Mark Alvarez agreed. He argued the most important improvement was promptly releasing meeting minutes, particularly after longtime library secretary Bobbi Bohman resigned in protest earlier this year after she was questioned for releasing meeting minutes to The Salt Lake Tribune.

The board also agreed to establish a public comment policy, likely in June, though several members objected to censoring content as well as a suggestion to remove speakers who do not comply.

"It seems a little punitive," the board's Ella Olsen said, though she favored rules forbidding clapping, booing or other intimidation tactics.

Alvarez said recent outbursts stem from management controversies and a "crisis in communications."

"That's not normal in a library meeting," he said.

The board also is poised to change its leadership next month. Board member Kevin Werner was nominated to replace President Hugh Gillilan beginning in July.

Derek P. Jensen