Saline County Judge Matt Brumley on Monday defended actions taken by the Quorum Court since April that place increased pressure on the county's library system, saying their efforts are intended to protect the "most vulnerable of our county and community."
Brumley also spoke against criticism of a resolution that asks the library system to relocate certain material "due to their sexual content or imagery," denying that the resolution was motivated by an attempt to marginalize people based on race or sexual preference.
He spoke during an afternoon news conference at the Saline County Vote Here building in Benton. His conference came ahead of a special library board meeting, during which the board discussed the resignation of a board member, at least the second board member to resign in June.
Brumley's conference is the first he has held following months of increased attention and pressure placed on the library system by the county's justices of the peace and political groups, moves that reflect similar scrutiny placed on library systems across the state and country. Brumley said the aim of his press conference was to provide information that's "as accurate as I can get it."
The county judge said he and the justices of the peace support the library system, its patrons and "people who want to serve well and responsibly" within that system.
"How can you be for great education and not for a library?" he asked.
Library Director Patty Hector has criticized the resolution as unnecessary, and other opponents of the resolution wondered by what standards the Quorum Court might determine what constitutes "sexual content or imagery."
Brumley emphasized again that the goals of the resolution, as well as a later ordinance scheduled to be voted on in August, were not to ban books or defund the library system.
The ordinance, read by the Quorum Court on June 20, would put many of the library board's powers under the oversight of the county judge and the Quorum Court, including the board's ability to hire and fire staff.
Brumley said he felt prompted to urge justices of the peace to address the accessibility of certain library materials following a state legislative committee reading of a bill that exposes librarians to criminal prosecution and creates a process for challenging books available to children in public and school libraries.
"I remember making a comment that we need to address this sooner than later, that this issue was coming, and let's be proactive," he said.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed that bill into law on March 30, making it Act 372. It is scheduled to go into effect Aug. 1, though a lawsuit filed June 2 in federal court asks a judge to strike down two sections of the bill.
In response to a question about how material should be identified as "sexual content," Brumley said, "I believe that when somebody asks you, 'What would you describe as an automobile?' there can be a whole lot of answers to that. But when I see one I know."
Specific indicators of sexual content inappropriate for children may include "explicit graphic detail that goes into the actions, the sensations of [sex] in great detail," he said.
Brumley said these concerns over the content of library materials must be addressed "collaboratively," adding that he looked forward to that happening with the cooperation of the library board.
"I feel confident that will take place," Brumley said.
However, Brumley told justices of the peace during an early June committee meeting that he had "lost confidence" in the library board. Some critics, including District 2 Justice of the Peace Everette Hatcher, have gone as far as calling for the board's elimination.
The comments came in part due to what one justice of the peace called "obstinance" on the part of Hector and the library board.
Hector said in a mid-April interview that she didn't believe anything needed to be removed or relocated, as "people have a First Amendment right to read whatever they want."
Efforts to restrict children's access to books and other materials at the county's libraries are part of a larger movement across Arkansas, and even the nation.
Rhetoric around children's access to books has become heated in Saline County and elsewhere, and library personnel across the state have reported harassment and threats in response to their work.
"I've seen a divisive nature that is foreign to me," Brumley said of the anger swirling over the Saline County Library System. "I have found people that I believe are so interested in making points that we sometimes forget the difference that we can make and positive impacts that we can make."
Brumley encouraged those getting impatient with the speed of proceedings to trust in the Quorum Court to do its job, encouraging residents not to "let haste mess up success."
The county judge confirmed that library personnel had reported to him harassment and threats, and that he'd heard similar claims from third parties.
During a June 6 committee meeting, several members of the public who stood both for and against the resolution and ordinance, condemned the angry tenor some had adopted over the issue.
One man, describing himself as a Christian and conservative, said he was "disgusted with some of the posts that have attacked our library, front line staff, especially. And it hurts my heart that their hearts have been hurt so badly by some of these comments."
Brumley urged those who felt that they had been threatened by someone who opposes them over library materials to contact their police department or sheriff's office immediately.
"If I'm your first call you've made the wrong first call," he said, emphasizing that law enforcement's role was to respond to threats, while his was to condemn such behavior as inappropriate.
Brumley said, however, that he "remained hopeful" about the outcome of their efforts and that he looked forward to county residents "responding to each other while staying in truth, being compassionate and graceful."
"It's going to be OK. We have a great library system. I've identified an issue that has to be addressed. We're good enough to address it. I'm confident it will be addressed."