Liberty Lake politicians this month could change city law to reduce the authority of the library board, a five-member group of appointed volunteers that sets policy and has the final say over which books belong on the shelves.
During the City Council’s Jan. 17 meeting, council members Wendy Van Orman, Chris Cargill, Jed Spencer and Phil Folyer voted to have staff draft an amendment to the city’s library law. Council members Tom Sahlberg, Annie Kurtz and Dan Dunne voted against the motion.
If the city adopts the amended ordinance, which appears likely based on January’s debate, all policy decisions made by the Liberty Lake Municipal Library’s Board of Trustees would require council approval.
The proposal to limit the library board’s authority follows an unsuccessful citizen-led effort last spring to ban “Gender Queer,” a graphic novel that explores gender identity.
“Gender Queer” has inspired censorship debates at dozens of libraries throughout the country. Liberty Lake’s library director last spring said the book was housed in the adult section and noted it had won numerous awards, including from the American Library Association. But critics have said it’s inappropriate for kids, in large part because it includes depictions of oral sex.
Van Orman, a former Liberty Lake mayor, is leading the push to change city law. Alongside Cargill, she was one of two council members in May who voted against the library board’s decision to retain “Gender Queer.” Van Orman has said she has no intention of banning specific books.
“We just want to make sure that our citizens, who are paying for the library to begin with, have a second place to go if they don’t agree with what is being passed by an appointed library board,” she said in an interview. “We just want to make sure the residents have an area of recourse.”
Salhberg, who spent 26 years as a Spokane police officer, said in an interview that he doesn’t think the City Council should be meddling in library policy decisions or giving itself more control over book censorship.
“I think that if the legislative body of a city can’t trust the people who are at the top of our organizational chart to make the right policies and recommendations for our library, then we have a power and control issue that won’t be resolved by changing this ordinance,” he said.
Soon after the City Council in May voted 4-2 to uphold the Board of Trustees’ decision to keep “Gender Queer” in the library, the board began reviewing its challenge policy, the process by which a resident can request a book’s removal.
Library board chairman Brad Hamblet said the board read the policies of libraries throughout the state as well as the recommendations of the American Library Association, which on its website “promotes the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinions even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular.”
“We arrived at the conclusion that the decision of a book challenge should end with the Board of Trustees,” Hamblet said, adding that the board’s vote was unanimous.
City Councilman Phil Folyer said at the Jan. 17 meeting that he believes the library board’s decision creates a “checks and balances” issue.
Like many municipal libraries in Washington, Liberty Lake library board members are appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council.
Per Liberty Lake law, the City Council is responsible for funding the library and the Board of Trustees sets its policies. The council can remove board members by a majority vote.
Delegating policy decisions to a library board is common practice. The Spokane City Council and Spokane County Commission both let their library boards operate autonomously.
Hugh Spitzer, a University of Washington law professor, said governments established library boards for a specific reason.
“The original thinking is to protect them from political pressure when people don’t like the books libraries have,” Spitzer said. “It is to insulate them from political pressure. It’s a civil liberties kind of thing.”
The City Council can give itself authority over the Board of Trustees’ policies because of how Liberty Lake funds its library.
Some Washington libraries rely on library districts for funding. Library districts are standalone taxing entities, separate from municipal or county governments.
State law outlines clear rules for library districts, but Liberty Lake doesn’t have one. Instead, the city pays for its library through its standard budget.
Liberty Lake City Attorney Sean Boutz explained that the city established its library by ordinance and has the power to amend that ordinance.
“It would be a different scenario if it was its own library district, because then it would be its own entity, if you will,” Boutz said.
Hamblet said he’s concerned about the proposal to limit the library board’s authority and believes politics and books should be kept separate.
“There’s a reason why you have a Board of Trustees and why they’re appointed to guide the direction and functioning of the library,” he said. “If everything that the trustees do has to be subject to approval by the council, that leaves a question in my mind as to what’s the role of the trustees?”
Liberty Lake Mayor Cris Kaminskas said in a text that the library ordinance amendment won’t come before the City Council until Feb. 21 at the earliest.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Annie Kurtz’ name.