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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Liberty Lake City Council gains full authority over library in veto-proof majority

With a temporary veto-proof majority, the Liberty Lake City Council approved a controversial ordinance to give the council authority over policies in the city’s library.

Council members voted 5-2 in support of the ordinance. Phil Folyer, Chris Cargill, Jed Spencer, Wendy Van Orman and a freshly sworn-in Mike Kennedy supported the change. Annie Kurtz and Dan Dunne opposed it.

The ordinance would give the council final say over library policy, contrary to existing library rules giving the city’s citizen library board autonomy. Policy would have to be approved by the council to go into effect.

Supporters argue that library board members aren’t accountable to Liberty Lake residents the way elected council members are because they are appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council.

“It has operated in this capacity for 20 years,” said Van Orman, who sat on the council at the city’s inception and served a term as mayor. “The governing body is the elected seven-member City Council.”

Detractors, including numerous residents who spoke at the crowded city council meeting, worry the ordinance could make book-banning easier, as well as restriction without deferring to the experts on the library board.

“You have heard citizens over and over and over and over again,” library board chair Brad Hamblet said while speaking to the council. “As Legislators of our community, it’s your responsibility to represent those people.”

Supporters took advantage of a month-long window when they have a veto-proof majority as a result of election law that requires newly elected council members replacing council members who had been appointed to their seats to take office as soon as elections are certified.

In the November election, voters backed a slate of council members who will create a four-member majority in support of the policy change – not enough to overcome a mayoral veto. But because Kennedy took office late last month and Councilwoman-elect Linda Ball, who opposes the change and defeated Folyer, won’t take office until Jan. 1, the new policy is veto-proof.

The power struggle between the board and council stems from a citizen complaint on the book “Gender Queer,” a memoir in which the author explores their nonbinary gender identity. The memoir contains sexual imagery and was shelved in the adult section of the library.

Some call the book “porn” that should be kept out of reach of children, others say the attempted restriction is part of a national trend against LGBTQ+ books.

The American Library Association ranked “Gender Queer” as the most challenged book in 2021 and 2022.

“I do truly believe it is your intention to keep books like that out of the library,” Shawna Deane, Liberty Lake library board member, said at the city council meeting.

While the ordinance does not provide for the City Council to initiate a book challenge, those who support library autonomy fear that the council’s control will slide down a slippery slope allowing censorship in the future.

“We still have the authority to work on policy and present policy to the City Council, but with the new ordinance we are not the final determination of what the policy will be,” Hamblet said in an interview Wednesday.

Existing policy is protected from the council’s interference, until the board attempts to make policy changes. This includes a library policy change from May that says book challenges begin and end with the library board.

The City Council’s first attempt to strip the library board of final policy-making powers was passed by City Council earlier this year but vetoed by Mayor Cris Kaminskas.

In her veto – the first in the city’s history – Kaminskas recommended members from each perspective on the board and council meet and workshop a compromise to the year-long power struggle.

In a Friday special meeting, the library board and Kurtz met in a last-minute attempt at collaboration. They drafted an amendment to the ordinance, hoping to assuage community concerns of book banning and an authoritarian City Council.

The amendment would have prevented censorship from the council, mayor or board, and required policy to follow the law. The amendment failed 5-2.

“There’s nothing in the ordinance right now that allows for the banning of books,” Cargill said, calling the amendment unnecessary.

Cargill and Van Orman were the two who voted to remove “Gender Queer” from stacks when a citizen brought the book challenge to the council.

Kaminskas said she won’t waste the time, money and energy with a veto.

“I can exercise my right to not sign it to reaffirm my position on this whole topic,” she said.

The meeting came to a hault earlier in the evening when a suspected hacker joined the city’s live stream on Zoom and began yelling lewd and racist remarks in the middle of citizen comment. City council members and some in the audience sang “We Wish you a Merry Christmas” and other carols to drown out the offensive comments.