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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Liberty Lake city councilman files ethics complaint against fellow Liberty Lake city councilman

The Liberty Lake Municipal Library is seen in January 2020.  (Nina Culver/For The Spokesman-Review)

Well over a year ago, Liberty Lake resident Erin Zasada tried to get a book pulled from the shelves of her local library.

Zasada’s attempt to ban “Gender Queer,” a sexually explicit graphic novel about nonbinary gender identity, ultimately failed. But she jump-started a debate about library oversight that keeps resurfacing at Liberty Lake City Council meetings and came up again last month.

During an Oct. 17 public meeting, City Councilman Tom Sahlberg said he was filing an ethics complaint against fellow City Councilman Chris Cargill. Sahlberg, a retired police officer, accused Cargill of dereliction of duty and violating his oath of office.

“Councilman Cargill’s actions have been personal, vindictive and partial,” Sahlberg said.

The complaint comes after Cargill has repeatedly voted against Mayor Cris Kaminskas’ appointees to Liberty Lake’s civil service and planning commissions. Cargill on June 6 vowed to vote against all mayoral appointments until the City Council has final say over the Liberty Lake library board’s decisions.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of library boards throughout America have faced growing scrutiny in recent years and become embroiled in censorship debates.

Seemingly overnight, people in cities throughout the country have tried to ban certain books in the name of protecting children. Others have argued book bans are un-American and an infringement on freedom of speech.

The board that oversees the Liberty Lake Municipal Library voted against banning “Gender Queer” in 2022, following Zasada’s request. The City Council upheld that decision in a 4-2 vote.

The City Council’s interest in library issues could have ended there, but the library board then altered its challenge policy – the process that allows residents to request a book’s removal.

Following the recommendation of the American Library Association, library board members unanimously decided that book challenge decisions should end with them, not the City Council.

That change concerned four of the City Council’s seven members. They argued that the library board, made up of volunteers appointed by the mayor and approved by the council, shouldn’t be able to make policy decisions without the City Council’s approval.

The council majority this year, in a 4-3 vote, passed an ordinance that would have given the council final authority over library policies. While the ordinance stated that the City Council couldn’t ban books, it said nothing about book restrictions.

The ordinance could have become city law, but it required final approval by Kaminskas. Kaminskas vetoed it, becoming the first mayor in Liberty Lake’s 22-year history to use her veto power.

Overriding the veto would have required a 5-2 vote, but only four council members wanted to override it, so the ordinance died.

The veto rankled Cargill, who sharply criticized Kaminskas during the City Council’s June 6 meeting.

Cargill vowed that until the City Council has final say over library board policies, he will vote against all of Kaminskas’ appointees, vote against all of the library board’s budget requests and “be very skeptical of any proposal that comes from the executive branch.”

None of Cargill’s fellow council members has followed his lead and, so far, his votes against mayoral appointments have had no practical effect.

Cargill said in an interview that he has no interest in banning books or micromanaging the library board. He said he’s simply concerned about oversight.

City Council members are Liberty Lake’s elected representatives, Cargill said.

Therefore, he argues, they should have the final say on library decisions instead of appointed volunteers who aren’t directly accountable to voters.

“We’re going to have a rogue city department, in my opinion, that’s not really accountable to anyone,” Cargill said on June 6.

While the City Council can’t approve or deny library policy, it can remove library board members. Cargill said in an interview that he isn’t interested in removing particular board members.

He does, however, support the creation of a library district. If Liberty Lake went that route, voters would elect board members, and the City Council would no longer be responsible for funding the library.

Sahlberg said he believes Cargill’s pledge to reject mayoral appointees and library budget requests violates the oath of office that all City Council members take.

He has also repeatedly said that politicians shouldn’t be meddling in library decisions. Library boards should be apolitical, Sahlberg argues, and retaining a degree of separation between the City Council and the library is valuable.

Cargill said in an interview that he believes Sahlberg’s ethics complaint is “pretty silly” and “ludicrous.”

“Nothing in my oath requires me to vote for or against anything,” he said.

Sahlberg’s complaint will be handed off to a hearing examiner, an attorney who serves as a quasi-judge and reviews land use cases, code enforcement questions and other issues that don’t need to go through a formal court process.

The hearing examiner will investigate Sahlberg’s allegations and determine whether Cargill violated Liberty Lake’s code of ethics. Then the hearing examiner has a handful of options on how to proceed.

For example, it’s possible the hearing examiner will recommend that the City Council reprimand Cargill, or decide that the complaint was unwarranted.