Some Liberty Lake City Council members want the final say in the library board’s policymaking decisions to provide “checks and balances” on the board.
Other council members and city residents call those efforts a “power grab,” “totally unnecessary” and worry it could lead to council members banning books.
If the council approves a proposed city ordinance amendment, “bylaws, rules and regulations” adopted by the Liberty Lake Municipal Library’s Board of Trustees would require council approval. Library trustees, who are appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council, now set library policies.
The first reading of the proposal was done Tuesday. The council will hold another workshop with the library board prior to the second reading, which is scheduled for its April 18 council meeting.
At Tuesday night’s packed council meeting, which was briefly interrupted at times by a meowing cat in the ceiling, 11 members of the public spoke in opposition to the proposed amendment, claiming the proposal was about book banning.
The proposal comes on the heels of an unsuccessful citizen-led attempt last spring to ban “Gender Queer,” a graphic novel that explores gender identity and has led to censorship debates at many libraries around the country.
Some council members viewed the award-winning book as inappropriate for children but ultimately, on a 4-2 vote, decided to keep it on the library’s shelf. Council members Chris Cargill and Wendy Van Orman voted to remove the book.
On Tuesday, council members Phil Folyer, Van Orman, Cargill and Jed Spencer disputed the public’s claim that the proposed ordinance change was an effort to ban books.
“I am not in favor of banning books, and for me, this has nothing to do with banning books,” Spencer said.
Liberty Lake resident Joe Pitt disagreed.
“This is about banning books,” Pitt said. “Once there’s a pathway established that goes around the library and around the trustees, you’re gonna ban books because you can. You’ll have the political will to do it. … I know what censorship looks like, and this is what it looks like.”
Members of the public asked why the change was necessary if the library board has been functioning well. They said they trusted the knowledge and expertise of the board, and did not want council members deciding what residents can or cannot read.
Audience members applauded after each resident’s statement, prompting Mayor Cris Kaminskas to ask them to refrain from cheering. In response, they applauded by raising their hands and shaking them.
The City Council and the library board discussed the proposal immediately before Tuesday night’s meeting.
Library Director Jandy Humble said the board reviewed its policies last year, factoring in council members’ feedback on book selection criteria and its concerns about minors accessing library materials.
“There’s pages and pages of case law that state that the library cannot restrict access to minors,” Humble said.
She said the board considers several factors when deciding which books it allows into the library to be checked out by patrons.
“We are doing our due diligence in reviewing all of these policies,” said Brad Hamblet, library board chairman.
Folyer said the proposal has nothing to do with book bans or politics.
“This ordinance change does not imply that the library board or the librarian cannot be trusted or cannot be allowed to do their job,” he said.
Folyer said the proposed law change would not allow the council to create policy or request changes in how the library operates, but simply approve policy changes proposed by the library board.
“It is not a power grab,” he said.
If the proposal passed, councilwoman Annie Kurtz said she believed the council would make recommendations to the library board if it disagreed with a policy the board proposed, not simply approve or reject a policy.
“This sets up this perpetual loop that has no resolution,” Kurtz said. “So we are essentially becoming the board of the library because we approve the policies of the library.”
Spencer said it’s a good business practice to take one last look at the library’s policy. He said “nine times out of 10” the council would trust the board’s expertise and approve its policy.
“I don’t think there’s anything bad about having another set of eyes on a policy,” Spencer said.
Kaminskas said the City Council does not consider every policy in every city department. The proposal does not include the word, “policy,” and instead includes “bylaws, rules and regulations.” Kaminskas said the amendment needs more work if it is to move forward.
“This could be a slippery slope,” Kaminskas said.
During the council meeting, Kurtz asked why the proposal would move forward when every member of the public who spoke Tuesday opposed it.
“We have engaged our community,” Kurtz said. “They have given us their perspective and to continue to go forward, and not listen to our residents, to me signals that there’s something greater here, which is what everyone is saying.”
Kurtz said the council’s role is to pass laws and budgets.
“I think we’re out of our depth,” she said.
Kurtz suggested putting a resolution on the next council agenda saying it will not ban books if the proposal is not about book bans.
Cargill said the proposal would keep the library board in check.
“People often talk about what makes our country so special, and to me, what makes it so special is we have checks and balances,” he said.
Councilman Tom Sahlberg said “checks and balances” are for the government, not for citizens.
“To me, this ordinance change is totally unnecessary,” Sahlberg said.
Cargill said the current wording of the proposal may not be exactly right and asked for a broader discussion to find the right solution. He said he would like the library board to bring the council other proposals. Kaminskas challenged councilmembers to bring their own ideas to the next discussion.
Cargill said he was not pleased with the workshop before the council meeting, hoping it would contain more discussion and solutions for a middle ground.
“It was all a meeting that was all about how can we get the four who originally put this on the agenda to change their minds,” Cargill said. “That’s it. That’s not a discussion.”
He suggested creating a library district.
“If we are going to say that the library board should have all this autonomy and be able to do what they want without any oversight, then let’s create a library district,” Cargill said.