Saline County justices of the peace debated and rejected an amendment that would have made explicit a requirement that the area's library board make recommendations to the county judge regarding the hiring and firing of library staff.
The debate and vote took place during the county's monthly Quorum Court meeting Monday at the Saline County Courthouse.
The amendment, if approved, would have applied to a proposed ordinance that removes the county library board's ability to hire and fire library employees and places many of the board's powers under the oversight of the county judge and Quorum Court. The court will vote on the ordinance next month.
The meeting came a day after the Saline County Republican Committee posted on Facebook a call for the justices of the peace to remove Patty Hector, the library's executive director, "and replace the three remaining democrats" on the library board.
District 13 Justice of the Peace Keith Keck, who proposed Monday's amendment, said he was concerned because the proposed ordinance removes the library board's hiring and firing power without explicitly stating that the board would make recommendations regarding system employees to Saline County Judge Matt Brumley. He cited Arkansas Code Annotated 13-2-402, which states, "No person shall be appointed to the office of county librarian unless prior to appointment the person is recommended for appointment by the county library board, if the board has been created."
"This brings the library board back into their Constitutional role," Keck said. "But it still leaves all of the hiring and firing and wage discussions with the judge."
District 7 Justice of the Peace Josh Curtis argued that the amendment was unnecessary, as the language's inclusion wouldn't change the ordinance's outcome. Curtis initially sponsored the ordinance when it was presented at a June 6 Finance Committee meeting. However, 10 of the county's 13 justices of the peace were listed as sponsors, including Curtis, when an amended version was presented at a June 19 Quorum Court meeting. Keck was not listed as a sponsor.
The Quorum Court rejected the amendment, meaning the third and final reading will take place during their Aug. 21 meeting.
PUBLIC COMMENT, JP RESPONSE
As with previous meetings, much of the public comment portion of Monday's session focused on the county library system.
One man accused the Quorum Court members of using "hate and intimidation" to support their arguments in favor of limiting the library board's power and argued that they failed to consider alternatives to their ordinance.
"Justice of the Peace Keith Keck is the only one that has shown any critical thinking skills in the whole bunch of you," he said. "He is the only one of you that I respect."
A South Carolina man who said he was closing on a house in the county later in the month said he was glad to "see people involved, people standing up for godly, biblical values." He praised the justices of the peace and the heightened scrutiny placed on the content of books available to children in the library, and criticized those who denied the books' placement was an issue.
"I was appalled at what I saw in the children's books at the libraries," he said. "If they say the children aren't checking them out, anyway, why not just get them out of there?"
A Saline County resident said he believed the Quorum Court's attention toward the library was having unintended consequences. He argued that the Quorum Court's efforts to limit children's access to books "may be drawing more attention to these books than if you had allowed the books to stay in the same location as before."
He also expressed concern over the degree of control the governing body was trying to exert over access to books, asking how those present might respond if, in the future, the government banned books that supported conservative values.
"Would that be justified, or an overextension of government powers?" he asked.
After public comment ended, Keck urged the justices of the peace to read the entirety of the books being challenged, as "some of them may or may not meet the criteria" for relocation.
Other justices of the peace denounced criticism directed at them by supporters of the library system.
"I am a god-fearing Republican," Clint Chism, District 11 justice of the peace, said. "I'm not ashamed of that." But Chism said he and other supporters of the ordinance had been called "haters" and "corrupt," and that they had been compared to Nazis.
Curtis likewise decried what he saw as vitriol directed against them.
"I'm sick and tired of the threats and the name-calling, questioning of courage, our integrity, my morals," he said. "I don't question any of y'all's morals or integrity."
He mused that the Quorum Court "may need to change the rules that reflects the law that will allow public comment," but did not elaborate on what those changes would be.
Harassment and threats have also been directed at library personnel, according to Brumley. Since April, at least two library board members have resigned.
On Sunday, the Saline County Republican Committee posted on Facebook scans of a resolution they passed earlier in the month urging Brumley and the Quorum Court to "remove Director Hector at the earliest possible time," and to "replace the three most senior members of the library board and the current vacancy with community members who better reflect the conservative nature, ethics and morals of the county as a whole."
The resolution, adopted July 6, also accuses the library system of "multiple instances of waste, fraud, and abuse of our tax dollars," and of operating "essentially as a fourth branch of government." It claims Hector "weaponized" library funds "by funneling money to third-party organizations" that are suing the state over Act 372.
The resolution does not provide additional information about the party's accusation of fraud.
During Monday's public comment portion of the meeting, Scott Gray, marketing chair of the Republican Committee, said the resolution passed unanimously.
"The Saline County Republican Party is serious about cleaning up our library and holding the librarians accountable for the smut, filth and blatant financial mismanagement," he said.
In an emailed statement, Hector described the group's claims as "fabrications and lies made up because I refused to relocate books without following approved library procedures."
The library director said she believed most Republicans in the county are "reasonable people who don't support censorship."
"The 'new' Republican Party as they call themselves wants to be the face of all Republicans, but I think that's not for them to decide," she said.
The library system itself, in a statement, said several changes were coming to their youth services department in an attempt to address parents' concerns. Reviews from Common Sense Media, an organization that provides information on the suitability of media and technology for children, will be available to parents while in the library so they can make more informed decisions about the books their children want to read. Also, the library is developing a new collection for young adults ages 18-24.
"It's been a trend in publishing for 10 years or so and libraries are starting to catch on," the library said in their statement. The system said it is currently doing research on the plan, but hopes to move toward implementation after school starts.
A voicemail and email left with the Republican group on Tuesday seeking additional information about their accusations of fraud was not returned by deadline.