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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Proposition to close Columbia County Library is unconstitutional, court commissioner rules

DAYTON, Wash. – A ballot proposition to close Columbia County’s only library is unconstitutional, a court commissioner ruled Wednesday.

Dayton resident Jessica Ruffcorn, who said the library is exposing children to offensive books, circulated a petition earlier this year to put a measure on the November ballot to dissolve the Columbia County Rural Library District.

If the measure were to succeed, the library’s materials would be transferred to the state library and the building would return to the city of Dayton.

Closing the library would be an irreparable loss that would disproportionately affect the poorest members of the community, Columbia County Superior Court Commissioner Julie Karl said at Wednesday’s hearing.

Only residents in the county’s unincorporated area would have been allowed to vote on the proposition, even though the majority of the library district’s taxpayers live inside the county’s two incorporated towns, Dayton and Starbuck.

A political action committee called Neighbors United for Progress, formed in early 2022 to oppose extreme candidates running for local office, filed a lawsuit against Ruffcorn and the county, requesting an injunction and judgment against the ballot question, known as Proposition 2.

Vice chair of the PAC, Ken Graham, said “the main issue is taxation without representation,” because residents of Dayton pay taxes for the library district, but wouldn’t have had a say in its dissolution.

The Neighbors United for Progress lawsuit further alleged that some of the petition’s signatures were gathered fraudulently, and provided affidavits of some citizens who said they were misled that the petition was simply to move or remove the objectionable books, not to close the library altogether.

Karl said there is good cause to believe that there was fraud with deliberate disinformation about the petition, and that there should be an investigation into potential criminal acts.

Of 282 signatures in a first petition submitted to the county auditor’s office, only 101 were certified as valid, which fell short of the 107 required for the ballot. Many of the original signatures belonged to residents of Dayton.

A second petition submitted two days later, just before the deadline, had 186 signatures, of which the auditor certified 163.

Yard signs for and against the proposition are scattered around Dayton, which has 2,500 of the southeast Washington county’s 4,000 residents. Residents say the issue has torn the community apart.

Ruffcorn said she has been mischaracterized as trying to ban books, and that she wanted what she called sexually explicit materials relocated from the children’s section to the adult section. The petition became necessary when those efforts failed, she said.

About a dozen books of concern were reviewed, and some were relocated from the teen section on the basement floor to the adult section on the main floor, or to the young adult nonfiction section, library board director Jay Ball said.

The books all had to do with LGBTQ+ or racial themes, he said.

The outrage over the past year, with up to 100 people attending board meetings, was manufactured and an attempt to control others in the community, Ball said.

“It really comes down to censorship,” he said.

The library’s director, Todd Vandenbark, resigned amid the controversy in July.

The Dayton Memorial Library dates back to 1937, but the city of Dayton ran into some financial difficulties with operating the library in the early 2000s. The solution was to organize a rural library district, which took over the library in 2005, said Tonya Patton, an original board member and chair for 13 years.

The district, which comprised the unincorporated part of the county, annexed the city of Dayton in 2009.

Patton said the district was a huge success toward stabilizing funding and allowed the library to expand its collection and double its hours.

A state statute regarding dissolution doesn’t account for what happens after a town is annexed into a district.

The statute appears to only allow residents in the original unincorporated area of the district to vote.

County Prosecutor Dale Slack requested a legal opinion from Attorney General Robert Ferguson, who agreed that only unincorporated residents could vote on the issue.

Karl on Wednesday said it was clear the legislature intended when drafting the dissolution statute that the entire district be allowed to vote.

“It doesn’t make sense to have people that live in the county be the only ones that vote on something that so much affects the citizens of the city,” Karl said.

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.