Saline County JPs OK rule expanding powers over library board

The Saline County Courthouse in Benton is shown in this 2019 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo)
The Saline County Courthouse in Benton is shown in this 2019 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo)

Members of the Saline County Quorum Court approved an ordinance on Monday that would broaden their control over the local library system.

Justices of the peace voted for the measure during their monthly quorum court meeting at the Saline County Courthouse in Benton. District 1 Justice of the Peace Pat Bisbee and District 13 Justice of the Peace Keith Keck gave the sole dissenting votes.

The ordinance, which amends the 1978 measure that first established the Saline County Library board, strips library board members of their ability to hire or fire library employees and to regulate their salaries. The library will also be subject to an annual third-party audit, and its budget will need approval by, and will be subject to appropriation by, the Quorum Court.

First proposed in June, the ordinance came before justices of the peace less than two months after they approved a resolution that “requested” the library move certain materials with sexual content or imagery to a location inaccessible to children.

At the time, library Executive Director Patty Hector told reporters the resolution was unnecessary, saying the materials were already placed in appropriate areas.

Both the ordinance and resolution are part of a broader trend by politicians, interest groups and concerned citizens across the U.S. to restrict children’s access to material at libraries.

The measure was first presented June 6 at a Finance Committee meeting and was sponsored by the following justices of the peace: Josh Curtis, District 7; Everette Hatcher, District 2; C.J. Engel, District 9; Barbara Howell, District 4; Ed Albares, District 8; Justin Rue, District 5; and Clint Chism, District 11. Only Curtis was listed as a sponsor of the draft presented on June 6.

Among the changes brought by the ordinance is the addition of the language "subject to oversight by the Saline County judge" to a section that gives the library board authority to "manage, operate, maintain and keep in a good state of repair any and all buildings, equipment or installations of any kind used and devoted to the purpose of the Saline County Public Library."

The board’s ability to purchase “supplies, equipment and other property and things requisite and necessary for the operation and management” of the library would also be subject to the county judge’s oversight.

Rules, policies and procedures, formerly decided solely by the library board, would be subject to review by the county judge, according to the amended ordinance.

It strikes a requirement that each board member furnish to the county a $2,500 property bond. However, board members "shall cause to be furnished to the County, for filing through the County Clerk, subject to any statutory requirements, sufficient security, through bonding or insurance, to insure the County against any misappropriation or mishandling of funds. The Library Board shall cause to be obtained a primary payer or first payer insurance policy or policies to provide adequate security against claims that may be made due to actions or inactions of the Library Board or Saline County Public Library, against the Library Board or Saline County Public Library, with the County as an additional insured.

The most prominent supporters in favor of the ordinance, and the most vocal critics of the library board’s leadership, have been members of the Saline County Republican Committee.

The group promoted a billboard along Interstate 30 that reads, among other messages, "STOP X-RATED LIBRARY BOOKS" and "," and passed a resolution in mid-July "requesting that the county remove Director Hector and replace the three remaining democrats on the library board.

Among the books opposed by the Saline County Republicans are “This is Our Rainbow,” edited by Katherine Locke and Nicole Melleby; “Perfect,” by Ellen Hopkins; “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” by Stephen Chbosky; and “Last Night at the Telegraph Club,” by Malinda Lo.

The group opposes those books in part due to sexual content within their pages, according to their website. However, the website denounces another book, “Me and White Supremacy,” because, the group says, “it indoctrinates children with the fallacies of Critical Race Theory.

Another group, the "Saline County Library Alliance," has in response purchased several billboards defending the library and has scheduled events, including rallies, in support of the library. One such rally began an hour and a half before Monday’s Quorum Court meeting.

The group describes itself on its website as a “non-partisan coalition of Saline County residents and organizations united in our shared goals of defending the library and ensuring the public is well informed.

” “We believe the library is a vital part of the community regardless of political affiliation, sexual orientation, gender, or economic status,” their website states.

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