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Officials in one Central Arkansas county consider shifting library authority to county judge | #childsafety | #kids | #chldern | #parents | #schoolsafey


The Saline County Quorum Court will decide at a future meeting whether to shift some control over the county library system’s staff, budget and operations to the county judge.

The proposal, read for the first time at a Monday meeting, would amend the 1978 ordinance that created the five-member board that oversees the Saline County Library system. The current ordinance says the board has “full and complete authority” to maintain the library and “the exclusive right and power” to purchase library materials.

The amendment would remove those phrases and add “subject to oversight by the Saline County Judge.” It would also require the library board to submit all proposed changes to library policy to the county judge for approval, submit its annual budget to the quorum court for approval and obtain insurance policies in case of “claims that may be made due to actions or inactions” of the board and library administration.

Saline County Judge Matt Brumley has echoed some residents’ statements that the board and library director, Patty Hector, should relocate books they consider “inappropriate” for minors to a place in the library that only adults can access.

Several of the 15 people who spoke against the ordinance said Hector has been treated unfairly, while a few of the nine Saline County residents who spoke in favor of the ordinance said they believed Hector, her staff and the library board should be investigated, fired or both.

District 2 Justice of the Peace Everette Hatcher said he would approve of “eliminating the whole board” if the quorum court does not amend the ordinance.

“Until now we’ve had voices that have asked us to delay… but I believe the library leader has demonstrated obstinance against what I think is very clear that should be done,” Hatcher said.

Hatcher and nine more of the 13 members of the all-Republican quorum court are sponsoring the proposed ordinance. Justices Pat Bisbee of District 1, Rick Bellinger of District 6 and Keith Keck of District 13 are the exceptions.

The court recommended in April, with an 11-2 vote, that the library “relocate materials that are not subject-matter or age appropriate for children, due to their sexual content or imagery, to an area that is not accessible to children.”

Hector has refused to relocate books, and she told the court in May that “there is nothing wrong with these books” and “it’s not illegal to be gay or trans.”

At the library board meeting the following week, Brumley said Hector’s words gave him a “high degree of concern,” and he reminded the board that he plays a role in appointing them.

The board proceeded to table a resolution, put forth by Chairwoman Caroline Miller Robinson, that would give the county judge “concurrent power to relocate or remove books” from youth sections of the library if they are “inappropriate for youth.”

Miller Robinson resigned earlier this month. On Monday, the quorum court appointed her replacement, Jamie Clemmer, to serve the remainder of the term ending June 30 and the subsequent five-year term.

Clemmer is a member of the Arkansas State Board of Election Commissioners and the husband of former state Rep. Ann Clemmer (R-Benton).

Tess Vrbin

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Arkansas Advocate

From left: Ashley Clayborn, Teresa Hall, José Gonzalez and Sam Watson hold up signs in support of the Saline County Library on the county courthouse lawn on Monday, June 19, 2023.

Community organizing

Saline County has been the primary battleground for the statewide debate over what content should be available to children in libraries. The court considered the April resolution “proactive” in light of a new state law, Act 372 of 2023, that goes into effect Aug. 1.

The law will change the way libraries handle challenges to content that members of the public consider “obscene” and create criminal liability for librarians who distribute such materials. Local elected officials will have the final say over whether a challenged book can stay on publicly available library shelves or must be moved to an area that minors cannot access, the law states.

Proponents of Act 372 and the proposed Saline County ordinance have said no one under 18 should be able to access some content pertaining to racism, sexual activity and LGBTQ+ topics, calling it “indoctrination.” Opponents of these policy changes say this content reflects the community and that restricting access amounts to censorship.

A billboard connected to Saline County Republicans was erected outside the Benton Walmart in May, decrying “X-rated library books.” On Monday, the billboard said “Director Hector MUST GO.”

The nonpartisan Saline County Library Alliance, which formed in response to backlash against library content, crowdfunded its own billboard that went up later in May on Interstate 30 near the city limits between Benton and Bryant.

The Alliance encouraged its supporters to gather on the courthouse lawn with protest signs over an hour before the quorum court meeting Monday. Over 50 people arrived, carrying signs with slogans, including “If you don’t like it, don’t check it out” and “My children, my choice.”

Nancy Ward said she was an educator for 46 years and retired as an English teacher at Bryant High School. She moved her family to Saline County in 1990 from Pine Bluff, where she taught at Watson Chapel High School until a book was removed from the curriculum.

“I’m deeply saddened that in 2023, we are facing the same narrow-minded thinking that I thought had been eradicated,” said Ward, who brought her 15-year-old nephew to the rally.

Bailey Morgan, a Library Alliance organizer, said he appreciated both the turnout from library supporters and that the quorum court did not yet vote on the ordinance.

“With that said, I don’t think we’re changing the quorum court’s minds, and I think only legal action at this point would,” said Morgan, a former Democratic justice of the peace candidate.

Legal and procedural concerns

Several speakers at Monday’s meeting, both for and against the ordinance, had previously spoken to the quorum court or the library board.

Lydia Cheatham, who spoke to the library board in May, said she was “disappointed” in the quorum court for being “influenced by extremist hate groups in the name of sticking with the Republican Party.”

“Young people have questions about the world we live in, with all its flaws and foibles, but don’t force everyone to read a bleached version,” she said.

Clint Lancaster directly responded to Cheatham when he spoke in favor of the ordinance. He called himself “an extremist, and proud of that” for wanting children to be unable to access books that depict sexual relationships.

 Saline County Justice of the Peace Keith Keck of District 13 (far right) expresses concerns to his fellow quorum court members about a proposed ordinance giving power over library operations to the county judge on Monday, June 19, 2023.

Tess Vrbin

/

Arkansas Advocate

Saline County Justice of the Peace Keith Keck of District 13 (far right) expresses concerns to his fellow quorum court members about a proposed ordinance giving power over library operations to the county judge on Monday, June 19, 2023.

Lancaster, a conservative attorney, told the court he would represent any member in a lawsuit challenging the ordinance, with the exception of Keck, who voted against the resolution in April and expressed misgivings about the ordinance on Monday.

Keck said he thought taking hiring and firing power away from library staff could be interpreted as “retribution” against them for not relocating books at the court’s recommendation.

“It puts fear into our library staff, and we need to be cognizant of that,” Keck said.

Jennifer Floyd, who brought her 10-year-old daughter to the meeting, said it is unfair that Hector and her staff “have followed Arkansas law, and they have been attacked for it.”

“The proposed amended ordinance is an overt precursor to firing Director Hector and attempting to replace her with a new director who is willing to look the other way and accede to this group’s demands, even when those demands are contrary to the law,” Floyd said.

Child safety

After five people spoke against the proposed ordinance, District 11 Justice of the Peace Clint Chism said none of the speakers had indicated, in his view, that they cared about protecting children. He claimed that libraries contain “pornography” and said it is his right to make sure his grandchildren do not find it.

Varena Hammons said those who assert their rights as children’s guardians are implying that “children don’t have rights,” and she asked how old a person has to be to have rights in that case.

“We are now soon to be a state that allows 14-year-olds to go to work with no permit,” Hammons said, citing a recent state law. “So they get to go to work, but they don’t get to choose the information they consume?”

Rachel Glenn, the sixth person to speak against the ordinance, said she specifically wanted to address the welfare of children, as both a mother and a mental health professional.

“Think of the message we send to our neighbors when we tell a young child that families like hers — with two moms, or of mixed race, or a mom who wears a hijab — that those families and stories are shameful, dirty and should be hidden away under lock and key,” Glenn said. “I know that a more diverse community is new and different for some of you, but please don’t make these people afraid because you are.”

Monica Davidson, a former Democratic candidate for the quorum court, said she was rejected by her Christian family and community when she came out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

“You aren’t protecting children,” Davidson said. “You’re running them off. They will leave the church. They will leave the county.”

“Young people have questions about the world we live in, with all its flaws and foibles, but don’t force everyone to read a bleached version.”

– Lydia Cheatham, Saline County resident

Counties’ involvement in ongoing conflict

Justice of the Peace Jim Whitley, the primary sponsor of April’s resolution, said the quorum court has the right to create and enforce rules over the library board because it created the board itself in 1978.

“I think it’s a mistake for the court to grant any board this level of authority and autonomy, outside of the county judge and outside of the quorum court, with this amount of money and this level of responsibility to have no oversight,” Whitley said.

Brumley said Hector told him via email earlier on Monday that the ordinance would downgrade the library board from administrative to advisory, which could result in the loss of $200,000 in state funding for the library.

Even so, the proposed resolution is necessary because the library’s most recent budget was more than $4 million, which requires “accountability expectations” from the county, Brumley said.

He took the library board to task at its May meeting for not submitting quarterly reports to him, as required by the ordinance that is up for amendment.

The library board voted unanimously at the same meeting to update its material reconsideration policy to explicitly require people to “read, view, or listen to the entirety of the work” before filing a reconsideration request, in line with the requirements of Act 372.

Every library system in Arkansas has a policy to address challenges from the public, and those policies will have to be altered to comply with Act 372. The existing policies are rarely used throughout the state, and people who challenge books often want them to be removed rather than relocated.

Earlier this month, 18 plaintiffs sued the state, seeking to overturn portions of Act 372. The Central Arkansas Library System, which covers Pulaski and Perry counties, is the lead plaintiff. Other libraries, independent bookstores, advocacy groups and individual library patrons are also among the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit claims Act 372 “imposes a content-based restriction on speech,” “fails to provide clear notice as to what acts are criminalized,” and gives “unfettered discretion to quorum courts and city councils to decide whether materials are ‘appropriate’ without any definite procedural safeguards or standards.”

The CALS board of directors authorized the lawsuit at its May meeting. Pulaski County Justice of the Peace Luke McCoy told the board he and his fellow Republican justices “will probably make [the lawsuit] an issue” next time the county judge has to appoint a member of the board.

Crawford County and its county judge, Chris Keith, are also defendants in CALS’ lawsuit after the county attorney cited Act 372 as justification for “modifying and changing” library policies to “protect children from exposure to materials that might harm their innocence.”

Three Crawford County parents filed their own lawsuit May 26 against Keith, the county quorum court, the library system board and interim library director, challenging the relocation of LGBTQ+ children’s books into separate “social sections” at each library branch.



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