BENTON -- Members of the Saline County Quorum Court approved an ordinance Monday that would broaden their control over the local library system.
Justices of the peace voted for the measure 11-2 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.
"It's been turned into something complicated," said Clint Chism, District 11 justice of the peace, following public comment. "All along all of this was protecting children. If the books had been moved, we wouldn't be going through this tonight."
Bisbee, speaking after the Quorum Court meeting, said of his decision to vote against the ordinance, "I talked to many of my constituents, and the majority of the people I talked to in my district were against the ordinance. I represent them, and I had to vote with the majority of the people that I'd spoken to."
Public comment, which typically occurs at the end of Quorum Court meetings, was moved to take place before justices of the peace considered the ordinance.
"We're going to go a little bit out of order," County Judge Matt Brumley said of the move.
The shift allowed members of the public to comment on the ordinance before justices of the peace voted on the measure.
Robin Robinson, who was the first speaker, emphasized what she saw as the importance of the resolution to relocate library materials, describing some as "X-rated books that need to be moved."
She also denounced the members of the public who opposed the ordinance and resolution. "They've made it political," she said. "And I think you should recognize that and do your jobs and protect children's minds and hearts."
Rachel Glenn, one of the residents in opposition to the ordinance, voiced her support for the library system and its defenders. Glenn said she believed the measures passed by the Quorum Court "won't be enough" for those who support them.
"We've seen this play out in Jonesboro and in communities across the United States," she said, referencing a vote last November in Craighead County and in Jonesboro that effectively cut their library system's funding in half.
Dean MacDonald Jr. rebutted the claim that children were being protected by the Quorum Court measures. He said that similar rules, and the people who support them, cause significant harm to LGBTQ communities.
"You missed the greatest commandment of all, which is to love thy neighbor," he said.
Angela Gray, who has spoken several times at Quorum Court and committee meetings in favor of the resolution and ordinance, urged the justices of the peace to review "every line-item and every policy."
"Do not become complacent," she told them. "Much work remains to be done."
Despite statements from opponents and supporters of the ordinance indicating they expect to press on in support of their own viewpoints, several residents also expressed a hope that the vote on the ordinance would ease tension in the county.
"This has been really, really tough for you guys. This has been tough for our community," Amanda Ewald said, first to the justices of the peace and then community members, regardless of their opinions.
Pam Vidt said, "After tonight, I also trust that this will put an end to all the dissension and all the animosity that has been displayed on both sides of this issue."
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 "SalineLibrary.com," 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, salinelibrary.com. The website denounces another book, "Me and White Supremacy," because, the group says, "it indoctrinates children with the fallacies of Critical Race Theory."
Jennifer Lancaster, president of Saline County Republican Women, spoke out in favor of the ordinance during yesterday's meeting. Like Chism, she said the effort was focused on "protecting children."
"I, too, am not in favor of banning any books," she said. "That's not what this is about."
The "Saline County Library Alliance," meanwhile, has 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."
Bailey Morgan, its organizer, said after the meeting that the vote "went the way we expected, not the way we wanted."
The group's next goal is to get the measure placed on the ballot, giving residents the ability to decide for themselves what the county should do about their library system, "instead of having a decision being made for them," Morgan said.
Justices of the peace were scheduled to vote on the confirmation of a new library board member during the meeting, but Brumley told the Quorum Court that his pick for the seat had "withdrawn their name from consideration."
Other matters addressed during the Quorum Court meeting included the second reading of a litter control ordinance and a measure amending the county's 2023 budget ordinance.
The litter ordinance will be read again before it is voted on, while the budget ordinance was approved.
The latter measure would shift $2,212.92 in insurance proceeds received by the sheriff's office into the agency's repairs and maintenance budget, and transfer $40,000 in the county's 911 emergency fund and 911 department to help pay for overtime and part-time assistance. The ordinance also shifts a $464 reimbursement from elections into the election worker budget.