A four-way race for two seats on the board responsible for running the library system in parts of Kootenai County has prompted questions about censorship of materials and charges that the local Republican Party is injecting partisan politics into a nonpartisan position.
Incumbents Bob Fish and Michele Veale face challenges from Vanessa Robinson and Rachelle Ottosen for their seats on the Community Library Network board of trustees, a body controlling a roughly $7 million budget and a seven-library system with branches in Rathdrum, Post Falls, Hayden and more. The challengers have drawn the support of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee and have advocated for the removal of certain materials from the children’s section of the library dealing with social causes, including gender identity, racial discrimination and sexual orientation.
Fish and Veale say such arguments are distracting from their service and the scope of the trustees’ mission as laid out in state law and the district’s bylaws. The issue has drawn unprecedented attention to a board that typically sees few, if any, challengers for the seats.
“I’ve never had anybody run against me,” said Veale, who was initially appointed to the Community Library Network board after having served as a trustee for the Post Falls library. “I’m not a politician, I’m a library advocate.”
Robinson told the central committee that she was running for the seat “so that I can be proactive in keeping our wonderful community red.” In a follow-up email, she wrote in response to a question about the board’s role in selecting materials that they should reflect the values of their community.
“The trustee positions are elected, which means they should represent the community,” Robinson wrote.
Ottosen did not respond to multiple email messages seeking comment and was unavailable for comment at her home in North Idaho on Friday. On her campaign website, Ottosen said she was driven to run for the position “because Idaho non-partisan positions are being filled by those that don’t share conservative values.”
Fish was elected to the board in a competitive race in 2017. He said he’s worked to bring more fiscal transparency to the organization and cast a vote in 2020 with his other board members not to take any of the 3% tax increase authorized by state law.
“I thought that would really be a feather in my bonnet,” said Fish, a retired banker who served on organizing committees with the Republican Party in San Diego and Los Angeles before moving to Coeur d’Alene six years ago.
Instead, Fish said he found himself scrutinized during the vetting process with the Kootenai County GOP on what types of literature he believed should be in the library, telling the Coeur d’Alene Press in April he believes he was overlooked because he rejected such questioning. The group instead forwarded Robinson and Ottosen. Veale did not participate.
“If a progressive person wanted some material in the library, something that me as a conservative, I find terrible, we’re going to get it for them,” Fish said. “That’s what we’re here for.”
“No single person, or special interest group, gets to decide what everyone else has access to. That’s the opposite of what a library does,” Veale said.
Brent Regan, the chair of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee, said his group is not in favor of censorship and that he pushed for transparency in the candidate recommendation process. All the answers provided by the candidates to the committee’s questioning are available online for review, something other organizations that have endorsed in the race haven’t done, Regan said.
“It’s a bit of a mystery why everyone is getting worked up about it,” he said.
Robinson said she supported the choice of parents in what their children should be reading.
“I believe that parents should be confident that their children are exposed to appropriate content while attending the library,” Robinson wrote in an email. “It is up to them to select books that broach social issues/causes and not the library network.”
Ottosen, on her website, states, “I don’t think the public libraries need to be an extension of scriptural knowledge only, but they sure shouldn’t be forcing taxpayer funding of satanic agendas that lead to the destruction of our nation.”
Regan said he does support removal of materials from the children’s section of the library, the position held by the candidates the committee recommended.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having age-appropriate materials in the children’s section,” Regan said.
Each of the library sections in Rathdrum, Hayden and Post Falls has a section specifically catering to children, be it a specific room or corner of the branch.
On Friday, some books stood on top of shelves, their covers clearly visible to any browsing youngster or their parents. None of the materials present Friday addressed gender identification or LGBTQ concerns. A book called “Weekend Dad,” about a boy coming to terms with his father moving out of the home, was on display in Rathdrum, and a book called “And the People Stayed Home,” a contemporary picture book describing the world’s activity during the coronavirus pandemic, was on display in Post Falls. They were interspersed with classics, including the “Madeline” series of books, as well as newer titles from popular children’s author Mo Willems, creator of the “Pigeon” and “Elephant & Piggie” series.
The appropriate avenue for review of materials is contained in the board’s policies, Veale said. The network employs a collection librarian whose job is to determine what materials should be purchased, she said. A user can bring a complaint about an item and it will be reviewed by the trustees. But such a challenge hasn’t happened in recent years, leading Veale, Fish and Kootenai County Democratic Chair Evan Koch to conclude that the issue is being raised to rile up more conservative voters and create a partisan slant to a nonpartisan board.
“Our concern as Democrats, is that the Republicans have politicized the race and it shouldn’t be,” Koch said.
Fish said he appreciated the purpose of the recommendations, noting that it would be difficult for any voter to stay apprised of issues in all corners of the county.
“If they do a proper job, it should be a tremendous benefit,” Fish said. But their recent endorsements, beyond the library network race, have strained the group’s credibility, he said. He pointed to their recommendation of Todd Banducci, the chairman of the North Idaho College Board whose alleged aggressive and unprofessional behavior toward college employees and other trustees may be placing the college’s accreditation in jeopardy.
Regan believes Fish’s comments come from not being endorsed by the party.
“That’s exactly what you’d expect people not selected to say,” Regan said.
Robinson said she was proud of the support of the committee, and noted that she has also received other endorsements in the race.
“They are just one of many who not only believe I can do the job, but should do this job,” she wrote.
Veale, like Koch, said she was concerned about the larger issue of partisan politics being interjected explicitly into nonpartisan positions, including the library network.
“North Idaho is a place that loves libraries,” Veale said. “I have trouble understanding how the Republican Central Committee’s attitude fits with that.”
The top two vote-getters in the May 18 election will earn six-year terms on the board. Early voting is available now at the Kootenai County Elections Office, 1808 N. Third St. in Coeur d’Alene. The office is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
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