Saline County justices of the peace voted to put off their vote on an amended ordinance on Monday that would have put many of the county library board's powers under the oversight of the county judge and the Quorum Court.
The decision came as at least one justice of the peace floated the idea of eliminating the board if the amended ordinance does not ultimately pass.
The ordinance was read before the Quorum Court for the first time during Monday's meeting. It will be read twice more, with the second reading taking place during July's meeting, and the third happening in August. The justices of the peace expect to vote on the ordinance at the August meeting.
The amended ordinance would also remove the board's ability to hire or fire the library's employees and, according to a news release issued Monday from the library system, requires the library to pay for a third-party audit and purchase insurance that includes coverage for the county.
During Monday's meeting, the justices of the peace also unanimously voted to approve the appointment of Jamie D. Clemmer to the library board. Clemmer's appointment came after Caroline Miller Robinson, the library board's former chair, resigned on June 6.
The justices voted unanimously to read the amended ordinance on Monday and open the subject up for discussion.
The ordinance, which was first presented at a June 6 Finance Committee meeting, is 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.
Curtis opened discussion of the proposed amendments on Monday by saying there had been "a lot of misinformation" regarding the rule. He emphasized the importance of there being oversight of the library board.
The ordinance mandates that the "Library Ordinance be amended to provide greater oversight to the County Judge of Saline County and Quorum Court." It adds the phrase "subject to oversight by the Saline County Judge" to an existing section of the rule that states the library board has "full and complete 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."
Curtis cited Amendment 55 of the Arkansas Constitution, which states that any county employee who is not employed by other elected officials of the county will report to the county judge.
"This ordinance puts that back in place where the judge will have oversight of the contracts," he said.
During the June 6 committee meeting, County Judge Matt Brumley said the library would still have the authority to fill out a budget. However, the county judge would have oversight of the budget, which would be submitted to the Quorum Court for approval.
Brumley said during Monday's meeting that such oversight is critical.
"This county judge believes that when you have an organization that's last budget was $4.167 million, that that is a good idea," he said.
The county judge emphasized that, despite his desire for oversight, the Quorum Court would not rush in their decision.
"I want to make this clear to the Saline County residents: that there is not an emergency clause on this."
Hatcher said that he believed the library board had "demonstrated obstinance" in the face of previous efforts by the Quorum Court to direct the operations of the library board.
Hatcher said he felt the amended ordinance should be approved.
"If it's not then I am going to be a voice for eliminating the board," he said. "Because we have to get something done."
The April resolution, which was approved by the Quorum Court, referenced Act 372, a state law signed March 30 that exposes library personnel to criminal charges for "knowingly" distributing material found to be obscene. Such efforts add to the wave of recent pressure placed on Arkansas libraries to remove children's books that address sexual subjects.
On June 2, a coalition of 17 plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in federal court asking a judge to strike down two sections of Act 372, claiming violations of the First and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Saline County Prosecuting Attorney Chris Walton is one of 28 prosecuting attorneys named as defendants in the case.
One justice of the peace urged caution about moving forward with the proposed ordinance.
District 13 Justice of the Peace Keith Keck said that, if the justices of the peace were to have voted on the proposed ordinance on Monday, he would have seen it as "retribution to our library staff, because we took something away from them."
He emphasized concerns he'd received from constituents about the county judge's ability under the proposed ordinance to hire and fire employees.
"It's put fear into the library staff," Keck said.
Keck also expressed concerns about federal cases involving libraries and urged the justices of the peace to ensure that they aren't holding their library to a standard that has been thrown out by a judge in other cases.
When the April resolution came to a vote, Keck was one of two justices of the peace who voted against it. The other was Justice of the Peace Carlton Billingsley of District 3.
The Saline County Library Alliance held a rally outside the county courthouse, roughly an hour and a half before the Quorum Court meeting began.
In an interview prior to the rally, the group's lead organizer, Bailey Morgan, said the event "would probably be the best way to make our voices heard, maybe on a grander scale."
"We don't feel we've really been listened to, much less taken into account," he said, referencing the Quorum Court's actions regarding the library.
A news release issued by Morgan describes the group as a "nonpartisan" collection of "citizens and organizations" with the aim of supporting the library against what it calls a "wave of discrimination" against books featuring "queer characters or characters of color."
However, Morgan said the consequences of the efforts to limit the library board's control go beyond books on the shelves.
"Really, especially in Saline County, it's so much more than just that," he said, listing off internet access in rural areas, free printing services and the "library of things," a collection of physical items that library patrons can borrow.
Outside the county courthouse, before the meeting began, Peggy Butler and Claudette Zuber stood just outside the front door, chatting with each other. Butler was Zuber's English teacher when the latter was in 11th grade, decades before.
They disagreed about the ordinance, despite their connection.
"I think they should have moved the books out of the children's section," Zuber said, referring to the April resolution.
She said the content of some of the books available to children was "beyond what should be available."
However, Butler said she thought this was a "race to get people riled up."
"My experience [as a teacher] was that children read too little, not too much," she said.
During the public comment section of the meeting, Stephanie Johnson expressed her support for the ordinance. She claimed the library board supported "indoctrination, sexualization and the grooming of children."
"This agenda has no place in this county," she said. "The only remedy is to fire Director [Patty] Hector, the library board and most of the employees."
Local author and illustrator Dusty Higgins was among several who spoke in opposition to the proposed ordinance.
"I think it does allow you to begin to politically censor books that you don't [support]," he said. "And I also think that the way this has been handled with the library director looks like a political attack on the library."
He asked the justices of the peace to recognize that the library doesn't have the resources "to deal with these political attacks," and urged the Quorum Court to instead support them.
Jennifer Floyd, who also spoke in support of the library and against the ordinance, said the library system has been in compliance with the law, "both now and when Act 372 goes into effect." She described the ordinance and resolution as clear "retaliation."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Jennifer Floyd's last name.