Berkeley officials say a lawsuit by residents could prevent the demolition and rebuilding of two aging libraries in the poorest areas of town.
The officials took their case to Berkeley residents Tuesday night, publicly urging the plaintiffs to drop the suit at a rally before a City Council meeting.
The suit, brought by five residents calling themselves Concerned Library Users, contends language in a 2008 ballot measure that secured money for the renovation of the libraries does not contain the word "demolish" and that doing so would be illegal.
At issue are plans for demolition and construction of the west branch library on University Avenue and the south branch on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Current plans for demolition and reconstruction of the two branches would cost about $10.3 million.
City officials and politicians agree the ballot measure does not contain the word "demolish."
"Because of one word, we may not be able to have libraries for our kids and seniors in south and west Berkeley," City Councilwoman Linda Maio told about 50 cheering supporters outside the council chamber Tuesday night. "It's simply not fair."
Joining Maio at the rally were two other Council members, the president of the Berkeley school board, the president of the Berkeley teachers' union and a reverend whose church is near the west branch library on University Avenue.
Attorney Susan Brandt-Hawley who represents Concerned Library Users and their lead plaintiff, Berkeley resident Judith Epstein, said the group is willing to settle or drop the suit if demolition is taken off the table.
"We'd be really happy to look at solutions that don't involve demolition," Brandt-Hawley said. "We would love to find a way to compromise, but the bond funds don't fund demolition."
"These are historic buildings and should not be demolished if there is an alternative,' Brandt-Hawley.
She said an environmental impact report prepared by the city includes alternatives to demolition and that her clients have paid an architect to draw up alternative plans.
Berkeley City Attorney Zach Cowan said the city could go ahead and demolish the libraries, but if it loses the suit, it could be forced to replenish the bond money with other money it does not have at a time when the city is millions in debt.
"Given that it's a very high dollar risk, it certainly chills the city going forward promptly," Cowan said. "Spending the money out of the general fund is certainly not what the voters approved."
City Councilman Laurie Capitelli said the suit is a result of sore losers.
"Of all the meetings I went to, it wasn't until the last minute that a very few people who didn't get what they wanted decided to file a suit," Capitelli said.
Rev. Marvis Peoples of the Liberty Hill Baptist Church on University Avenue told the crowd: "I'm upset because people are messing with my children. This is just another trick bag that's been laid on our people again. We hope the people bringing the lawsuit reconsider because they are hurting our babies."
Doug Oakley covers Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley