In a packed Tuesday meeting, the Liberty Lake City Council reopened a year long power struggle surrounding the council’s authority over the city’s library board of trustees.
Council members discussed a controversial ordinance allowing the council to approve or reject library policies enacted by the board of trustees, which is made up of volunteers appointed by the mayor and approved by the council.
Supporters of the ordinance argue that since the board isn’t elected, it’s not equipped to represent the will of the people like council members. The council is the main Legislative body governing the whole city, supporters argue, and that includes the library. Others argue that the board, being more well-read and research-driven, is most qualified to make library-related policies, especially regarding book challenges.
This ordinance is resurrected from one vetoed in May by Mayor Cris Kaminskas, with differences. The council is expected to take final action on the new version Dec. 5.
The new ordinance would give the City Council complete control over library policy. The version approved but vetoed in May specifically turned control over most final library decisions to the council, but said the council nor the mayor could initiate an attempt to remove library material.
The issue of library independence dominated much of the discussion in the six Liberty Lake City Council races on the November ballot. Based on statements the winning candidates made during their campaigns, voters backed the status quo, returning a city council with four members who support the City Council having final decision-making powers over the library, and three who said the library board should maintain full control over library policy.
Supporters of the ordinance have reason to believe the mayor won’t be able to stop the ordinance this time around, if they act in a monthlong period.
At the next council meeting on Dec. 5, a newly elected Mike Kennedy will assume his seat on the board over an appointed Tom Sahlberg. Under Washington law, a winning candidate usually takes office at the start of the year. But if their predecessor was appointed to fill a vacancy, an elected council member is sworn in at the first meeting after election results are certified. The election is scheduled to be certified on Tuesday.
The other newcomer elected earlier this month, Linda Ball, won’t take office until January. She defeated incumbent Councilman Phil Folyer, who was elected rather than appointed. Folyer supports the ordinance, Ball doesn’t.
The gap between the swearing in of Kennedy and Ball creates a month-long window of opportunity in which council members who don’t support autonomy in the library board likely will have a five-person supermajority – enough to override a potential veto from Kaminskas, who doesn’t support the ordinance.
Some in attendance at Tuesday’s standing-room-only meeting called the timing “sneaky,” “a creative loophole” and undemocratic.
“You’re making a mockery of the election,” Shauna Dean, a Liberty Lake resident, said addressing the council.
One differentiation between the new ordinance and the one introduced in May is its missing language from the original that said the council wouldn’t initiate a book ban, nor approve or deny one made by the board.
Folyer, who is sponsoring the latest version of the library ordinance, said on Monday he removed language in the new proposal that would have kept final authority on removing materials from the library to the City Council because the mayor wrote in one part of her veto that letting the library board have the final say would be inconsistent with existing policy.
“I was like ‘OK, fine, we’ll get rid of it then,’ ” he said.
Folyer said he has no intention of banning books. He was one of four council members who voted against banning the book “Gender Queer” when it was brought to the council in 2022.
Councilman Chris Cargill, also on the supporting side of the ordinance, said it was meant to clarify the council’s authority over the board. Cargill was one of two council members who supported removing “Gender Queer” from the library.
“This is not an issue of the known, what we’re talking about is the unknown,” Cargill said. “What happens if a future board does something that puts the city in legal jeopardy? What happens if a future board comes in and adopts a discriminatory policy or something of the effect? This council would have no recourse.”
Also considering the future implications of the policy, Councilwoman Annie Kurtz said public commenters who supported the ordinance did so largely because they favored removing so-called inappropriate content from stacks.
“The public who supports this ordinance sees this as a vehicle to restrict access to books that they don’t approve of,” Kurtz said.
Councilman Jed Spencer said of the 36 email comments the council received from the public, 19 were in support of the ordinance. The one speaker to support the ordinance, Natalie Gauvin, spoke of the dangers of pedophilic imagery in society.
Brad Hamblet, who sits on the library board, said in a Tuesday interview that when considering book challenges, the board follows guidelines from the American Library Association and considers the First Amendment’s protection of free speech.
Opponents worry that giving the council full authority on all library policy will open the door to the council stripping the library board of having final say on what materials can be in the library.
“We would be doing all the research, we always do research, and take the advice of our library director and people that support here in the library when we make our decision about any policy change,” Hamblet said.
Those on the prevailing side of the mayor’s veto – council members Kurtz, Sahlberg and Dan Dunne – were surprised to see the ordinance back from the dead, or so they thought.
“Right now, we’re in the middle of budget work, capital facilities planning and strategic planning,” Kurtz said in an interview Sunday. “To insert this topic at this time is frustrating, and I think it takes away from doing the actual work the city needs done.”
Debate surrounding the library ordinance overshadowed discussions of the budget and capital facilities plan that were also on Tuesday’s agenda. The ordinance incited dozens of Liberty Lake residents to attend the hearing, with over an hour of public comment. All but one spoke opposed to the ordinance.
About 25 speakers, some Liberty Lake residents, some not, accused the council of a lack of transparency, failing to listen to constituents and trying to create a path towards book banning.
“The mayor nominated and the City Council approved the library board, and now you want to second-guess them and make library decisions that fit your agenda,” said Liberty Lake resident Jackie Babin. “I will ask you, how many of you have a degree in library science? I do, and so does the library director.”
If the council approves the proposal, Kaminskas will have 10 days to veto it. If she did, the council has enough time to override the veto before Ball is sworn in and support shifts.
Kaminskas told The Spokesman-Review on Monday she expects the ordinance to pass 5-2. If it does, she likely won’t waste time with a futile veto attempt, but she won’t sign it – a symbolic act communicating her disapproval. Lacking the mayoral signature won’t stop the ordinance from going into effect.
Editor’s note: A photo caption has been edited to accurately state Bob West’s residency.