The Warren Memorial Foundation’s board of directors owes the city of Westbrook more than a book collection.

An explanation, for starters, would be nice. The board announced abruptly last month that the Warren Memorial Library would close May 1, after being open to the public for 80 years, because operating expenses were eating away at the foundation’s endowment, which was suffering because of losses in the stock market.

The announcement justifiably upset and angered library patrons, who have questioned why the library didn’t bring the foundation’s financial problems to the attention of the public sooner so that an effort could have been made to raise money and keep the library open.

Rene Daniel, who has been speaking on behalf of the board, said the foundation has cut library expenses in half – to $250,000 – but it hasn’t been enough to preserve the endowment. He also said that although the closure of the library may seem abrupt, the board had been discussing it for a long time.

It’s unclear why Daniel, one of the newer members of the board, has been chosen as spokesman, and indeed his answers haven’t gone far enough. No one, for example, has explained why the endowment was able to survive previous recessions, but not this one. No one has explained how the board has tried to save the library, other than cut expenses. Daniel has said the board oversees a private foundation and, therefore, doesn’t owe the public any explanation of its finances.

While that might be true, the board’s unwillingness to be more transparent gives critics only more reason to question its management of a charitable endowment that was bequeathed community. The public has been left to wonder about what will become of a building that has been open to the public for most of the last century and an endowment that once paid for scholarships, a children’s theater program and a library.

Based on a review of the foundation’s tax records and an interview with one of the former library directors, Anastasia Weigle, it appears the foundation got into trouble long before the current recession by spending a significant portion of the endowment on the renovation and restoration of the building about five years ago. Initially estimated to cost a little more than $2 million, the project ended up costing closer to $3 million, and the library and the foundation hadn’t done any fundraising to support the project. With the endowment depleted, the foundation’s board was forced to cut costs at the library to continue supporting its operating expenses.

Weigle says she made several proposals after the renovation was completed to preserve the endowment and the library, one of which was to form a separate nonprofit that would support the library, but the board didn’t pursue any of them.

Instead, here we are a few years later, and the board is announcing the library will close. End of discussion. The foundation is now set to hand over the collection to the cash-strapped city and the Walker Memorial Library, which just lost two staff members in a round of city layoffs.

The foundation’s board owes the city a better accounting of how this endowment was so badly mismanaged. Blaming it on the economy doesn’t cut it. The board also needs to acknowledge that the foundation bears some responsibility for the stewardship not just of its endowment, but the library that was put under its care 80 years ago.

It could start by treating supporters of the library as friends rather than enemies. Most charitable organizations would kill for such a devoted group of supporters, who rallied in Riverbank Park Saturday but weren’t allowed on the library property, according to Weigle, because a member of the board reported the rally to police. The board could then engage the community in finding a solution that could rebuild the endowment and keep the library operating in some capacity.

If it cannot do these things, then this board should step down and allow new people to run this foundation who share the commitment to the community the Warren family clearly valued.

Brendan Moran, editor

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