Region & State

Saline County officials shift power over library staff, operations to county judge

Kennedy Kasten, left, and Mollie Palmer, hold signs while protesting an ordinance that would increase the Saline County Quorum Court’s control over the county’s library system. The quorum court voted for the measure during a monthly quorum court meeting at the Saline County Courthouse in Benton Monday evening. | John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate

The Saline County Quorum Court granted the county judge some control over the local library system’s staff, budget and operations Monday at the third consecutive meeting in which county residents verbally sparred over the availability of certain library books

By TESS VRBIN | Arkansas Advocate

The all-Republican county governing body voted 11-2 to amend the 1978 ordinance that created the five-member board that oversees the Saline County Library system. The previous ordinance said the board had “full and complete authority” to maintain the library and “the exclusive right and power” to purchase library materials.

The altered ordinance removed those phrases and added “subject to oversight by the Saline County Judge.” It also requires 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 has been the primary battleground for the statewide debate over what content should be available to children in public libraries. Supporters of the 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.” Others say this content reflects the community and that restricting access amounts to censorship.

Six people spoke against the ordinance, with some expressing gratitude to local librarians.

“Thank you for standing up in front of an entire quorum court and an angry mob that defiantly rejects reason and fairness,” said Dean MacDonald, addressing Saline County Library director Patty Hector, who was not in the room. “Thank you for not putting this community in jeopardy of a lawsuit for viewpoint discrimination. Thank you for being willing to do what is right even when it is clearly not popular [with] your so-called superiors.”

Before the meeting, the nonpartisan Saline County Library Alliance protested the ordinance on the courthouse lawn. The rally drew more than 50 people, including residents of at least 12 other counties. Many said they were concerned the purpose of the new ordinance would be to fire Hector.

Zach Bledsoe, a Democratic member of the Clark County Quorum Court, said he attended the protest to remind Saline County officials “that their job is to stay out of social policy” and focus instead on issues like infrastructure and the county budget.

The court recommended in April 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 said in May that “there is nothing wrong with” the books in question.

Saline County Judge Matt Brumley responded by telling the library board that Hector’s words gave him a “high degree of concern” and reminding board members that he plays a role in appointing them. He also expressed support for the resolution and the ordinance.

A few of the 11 people who spoke in favor of the ordinance at Monday’s meeting said, not for the first time, that Hector and her staff should be fired.

Some also said that those opposed to the ordinance had blown the debate out of proportion, and District 11 Justice of the Peace Clint Chism said he agreed.

“I don’t think anybody on this quorum court is looking at this as being political,” he said. “It’s bottom-line trying to protect the children.”

A few audience members responded with “Amen.”

Justices of the Peace Pat Bisbee of District 1 and Keith Keck of District 13 voted against the ordinance. They were two of the three quorum court members, along with Rick Bellinger of District 6, who did not co-sponsor the proposed policy change.

Keck also voted against the April resolution, along with Carlton Billingsley of District 3.

Some people who opposed the county’s April resolution and Monday’s amended ordinance repeatedly said they saw both measures as first steps to defunding the Saline County Library, citing the Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library as a warning. The Northeast Arkansas library system saw voters cut its funding in half in 2022 after protests over an LGBTQ+ book display and a transgender author’s visit to the library.

Justice of the Peace Jim Whitley of District 10, the primary sponsor of April’s resolution, said Monday night that he would “oppose any budget cuts or any defunding of our library” if they came before the quorum court.

“On both sides of the aisle, I appreciate the passion that everyone has for the library, because I agree with you all that it’s very important,” Whitley said.

Two library board members resigned in June, and the quorum court filled one of the open seats at its June meeting.

Brumley said at Monday’s meeting that Darnell Bell, the applicant he was going to recommend to fill the open board seat, had withdrawn his application, so the search for a new board member will restart.

‘This is known to be wrong’

The majority of the quorum court considered the April resolution “proactive” in light of Act 372 of 2023, a new law passed in March that was partially blocked by a federal judge in July, three days before it was scheduled to go into effect.

The law would have changed how Arkansas libraries handle controversial material and put the availability of certain books in the hands of elected officials, such as quorum court members.

Act 372 did not pass the House Judiciary Committee until it had been amended to say library materials should be relocated to an area inaccessible to minors, not removed from the premises, if elected officials find them to be “obscene.”

However, U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks ruled that the law could still lead to arbitrary interpretation and “content-based restrictions” that violate the First Amendment right to freedom of expression.

“The librarian’s only enemy is the censor who judges contrary opinions to be dangerous, immoral, or wrong,” Brooks wrote.

A protester on Monday carried a sign with this statement written on it. Other signs displayed “Our kids can handle the truth” and “Ban bigots, not books.”

Some protesters, both children and adults, read aloud some children’s books that conservatives have said are inappropriate for children, such as “And Tango Makes Three” and “A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo,” both fiction books with gay animals as protagonists.

LaToya Morgan, a librarian at Carver Elementary School in Little Rock, read “The Talk,” a children’s book that addresses systemic anti-Black racism. Supporters of the Saline County resolution and ordinance have said “anti-white” books should not be accessible to children.

Morgan spoke against Act 372 when it was moving through the Legislature in February, saying she did not see herself in many of the books she read as a child. She said Monday that librarians are trained experts “in purchasing material that is age-appropriate and that represents” the communities they serve.

“I don’t think that should be taken away from kids,” she said. “They should be able to see how they are alike and how they are different.”

The advocacy group Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students got involved in the protest because “public libraries go hand in hand with the public education system,” executive director Steve Grappe said.

“The public library system was established in order to have a place for the common man to go and learn about his civic duties,” he said.

Grappe said he recognized attendees at the protest from as far away as Sebastian, Newton, Boone and Washington counties. MacDonald, an Arkansas State University graduate student, said some others came from Craighead, Stone and Greene counties.

Zach Bledsoe, a Democratic member of the Clark County Quorum Court, said he attended the protest to remind Saline County officials “that their job is to stay out of social policy” and focus instead on issues like infrastructure and the county budget.

The range of attendees sent a strong message about the ordinance, said Bailey Morgan, a Saline County Library Alliance organizer and former Democratic candidate for the quorum court.

“The fact that people from out of Saline County are even aware of it, much less that they care enough to show up and oppose it, shows that this is known to be wrong not only by us in Saline County but across the state as a whole,” he said.

Categories: Region & State