Saline County officials move to tighten their authority over library hiring and budget

Comments target head librarian; ordinance to be voted upon June 19

Saline County Judge Matt Brumley (standing, second from left) told a Quorum Court committee on June 5, 2023, he has lost confidence in county Library Director Patty Hector. He's shown here at a May 22 Library Board meeting. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

Library Director Patty Hector‘s name was mud at the Saline County Courthouse Monday night, as the county judge, Quorum Court members and a roster of riled Republicans condemned her ongoing refusal to remove books from the young people’s section.

Justice of the Peace Josh Curtis introduced an ordinance to give the county judge power to hire and fire library staff, set librarians’ salaries and exert more control over the library system’s budget. The Quorum Court is scheduled to vote on that ordinance on June 19.

County Judge Matt Brumley told the Quorum Court he lost confidence in Hector in recent months after she refused to go along with a resolution they passed in April that called for moving some books out of the young people’s library section.

In media interviews since then, Hector defended her decision, saying that moving books to hard-to-access spots is equivalent to censorship. County officials do not have the power to dictate what books can be on library shelves, she’s said.

Brumley said Monday he objected to Hector’s refusal to go along with the April resolution and to her statements to the media and at board meetings about why she made the decision to not comply.

“It has been said time and time again, three times at the board meeting, that moving books is the same as banning books. That is false,” Brumley said.

Hector attended Monday’s meeting, but did not speak.

Roughly half of those who spoke favored pulling books with sexual content from youth-accessible shelves. The other half warned of a slippery slope that squelches minority viewpoints and limits what people are allowed to learn.

Free speech advocate Bailey Morgan, a local leader in the fight to prevent conservatives from limiting what content the library can offer, said he understands and respects the wish to shield youth from sexual content that makes some adults uncomfortable. But, he said, that’s not where this campaign will end.

Already, some of the books being targeted to be put out of reach have no sexual content to speak of but simply feature characters who are gay. Some books mentioned by the groups driving the attack on the library aren’t about sexuality at all but about racism. The targets will continue to spiral, he predicted.

“This is a box you can’t put the top back on,” he said.

Supporters of clamping down on library content seemed to be really freaked out about the sexual experimentation teens may get up to that are sometimes captured in print. One woman objected to a graphic novel in the youth section that mentioned butt plugs. A number of speakers classified books with sexual content as pornography. One man criticized Hector for not looking people in the eye at previous meetings and said she should be more receptive to taxpayers’ requests.

Three speakers objected to the idea of having to read an entire book before they could challenge it.

“I only need one bite of pie to know whether it’s made of chocolate or manure,” Richard Mills said.

Before the meeting was over, Quorum Court members had all but christened Jamie Clemmer, husband of former state Rep. Ann Clemmer (R-Benton), as a new Saline County Library Board member, replacing current Chair Caroline Robinson. Brumley, the county judge, said Robinson had resigned Monday afternoon.

Monday’s meeting actually consisted of two committee meetings (public works, plus safety and finance), so Clemmer’s appointment will have to go up for a vote at a full Quorum Court meeting.

The only Quorum Court members who weighed in on the library Monday defended chucking books from the young people’s section and seemed to embrace a change to a county ordinance to give the county judge, not the library board, the power to hire and fire all library staff.

While Hector was clearly not keen on the April county-level resolution, Hector has said both Saline library locations were already in compliance with Arkansas’s Act 372 months before its Aug. 1 start date.

Arkansas librarians brace for impact of law making them liable for “obscene” content

The divisive new law dictates the process by which children’s books and other content can be challenged should someone find them objectionable. It makes librarians criminally liable should they knowingly allow young people to access harmful materials and could send them to jail for up to a year. Act 372 sets up locally elected bodies to be the arbiters of what belongs on library shelves.

A coalition of libraries, booksellers and readers filed a federal lawsuit over the law last week, arguing it attacks First Amendment rights.

This story first appeared on the Arkansas Times blog on June 5, 2023. You can find it here.

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