Until a city judge ordered a temporary halt yesterday to Mayor Nutter's planned closure of 11 city library branches, the mayor was groping toward a better strategy for trimming library costs to help plug a growing budget gap.

Whatever happens in the courts, Nutter's evolving plan could become the basis for an agreement on the fate of the branches. That would resolve an issue that, without good reason, has struck a decidedly downbeat note in an otherwise impressive first year in office.

Nutter's surprise announcement Monday that he hoped to line up private operators to reopen all 11 libraries slated for closure was a distinct improvement over any plan to turn out the lights for good.

In addition, the mayor delivered on his pledge to save and relocate after-school programs held at the branches slated for reuse.

Nutter even took time on Saturday to pace off the distance to the various recreation centers, schools and other facilities where the programs will move, assuring himself that the few blocks' walk was doable for children and other patrons.

At the threatened branches, the mayor hopes to keep the lights on by converting the libraries to what he describes as community "knowledge centers," leasing them to community groups, foundations, corporations and others to run.

If library users were able to find similar services at the centers, including books, reference materials and Internet access, as the mayor envisions, that certainly would cushion the blow for patrons who face losing full library services at their nearest branch.

Even under the leasing plan, though, the buildings would go dark for some time while the city lined up the leases. So far, five organizations have offered to take branches, leaving six branches up for adoption.

Turning the lights out for a day is a loss for library users, particularly children and schoolteachers who use the branches as de facto school libraries. So a delay in the closures set for today still makes sense.

That appears to be the immediate impact of the ruling by Common Pleas Court Judge Idee C. Fox, who said the mayor needed City Council approval before closing any library branches.

In an interview, Nutter said the city would appeal a decision that flouted the powers vested in the mayor by the City Charter.

Here's a prediction that Nutter wins the legal battle. And perhaps he should; City Council has shown its inability to eschew politics and be the final arbiter on budgetary matters. But that doesn't mean Nutter will win the war for hearts and minds in this controversy.

What the mayor yesterday called "the issue of the month for the past couple of months" continues to consume undue political capital. Short of making alternative budget cuts, he has to hope that his proposal to preserve community use of the branches will prove to be a positive, if belated, step.