Saline County Judge fires library director after months of debate over children’s access to books

Now-former director Patty Hector says she “did not do anything wrong, except to not ban books”

By: - October 9, 2023 1:43 pm
Patty Hector, director of the Saline County Library, listens during public comment on a resolution that would restrict children's access to books that contain "sexual content or imagery" at an April 17, 2023, meeting of the county Quorum Court. The court adopted the resolution. At left is Leigh Espey, library manager. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Patty Hector (right), director of the Saline County Library, listens during public comment on a resolution that would restrict children's access to books that contain "sexual content or imagery" at an April 17, 2023, meeting of the county quorum court. The court adopted the resolution and later approved an ordinance in August that led to Hector's firing in October. Leigh Espey (left) became interim library director. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

The Saline County judge fired the director of the county library system Monday, seven weeks after county officials gave the judge some power to hire and fire library staff.

Patty Hector, who ran the Saline County Library for seven years, said County Judge Matt Brumley and county human resources director Christy Peterson told her in person Monday morning that her “services are no longer needed.”

Trevor Villines, the county communications director, also confirmed that Hector “is no longer employed” by the library.

UPDATED: Saline County officials express support for library obscenity law after much public input

The Central Arkansas county has been the state’s primary battleground for the debate over what content should be available to children in public libraries. Several county residents have said at quorum court and library board meetings said that no one under 18 should be able to access some content pertaining to racism, sexual activity and LGBTQ+ topics, calling it “indoctrination.”

The all-Republican Saline County Quorum Court recommended in April that the library “relocate materials that are not subject-matter or age appropriate for children, due to their sexual content or imagery, to an area that is not accessible to children.”

Hector became the target of conservative ire earlier this year when she refused to follow the quorum court’s recommendation. She told the quorum court in May that “there is nothing wrong with” the books in question.

Brumley responded by telling the five-member library board at its regularly scheduled meeting that month that Hector’s words gave him a “high degree of concern” and reminding board members that he plays a role in appointing them.

Hector said at the time that relocating books “is the same as banning” them; Brumley and members of the public said they disagreed.

Saline County judge: Library director’s statements cause “high degree of concern”

Hector said in an interview Monday that she was not surprised to be let go after members of both the public and the quorum court called for her firing. A Benton billboard connected to Saline County Republicans said “Director Hector MUST GO” in June; it said “STOP X-rated library books” when it was erected in May.

Hector also said she had been hoping to retire in a few years but is “relieved” to be “free at last.”

“For five months they held the axe over my head,” she said. “How does that make a person feel? It’s just rude and uncalled for [and] not professional.”

Through Villines, Brumley did not respond when asked if he waited several weeks to let Hector go because he was giving her another chance to relocate the books in question.

In response to backlash against the availability of these books, the nonpartisan Saline County Library Alliance formed to defend the library and oppose the efforts to censor books.

The group thanked Hector and Saline County Library staff for their work in a Facebook post Monday.

“We will continue to stand by the library in defense of the First Amendment and the rights of Saline County residents to access information,” the Library Alliance said in the post. “Though we are incredibly saddened to see such an incredible leader removed from her position over partisan politics, we are also confident that she will continue to be of immense benefit to the community regardless, as too will be the Saline County Library itself.”

When asked if she plans to take legal action against the county, Hector said: “Let’s just say I have an attorney.”

She added that county officials did not give a reason for her firing or ask her to sign any documents.

“I’m thinking I did not do anything wrong, except to not ban books,” she said.


Hiring and firing authority

County library manager Leigh Espey is the system’s new interim director, Villines said.

He also said the county is “coordinating a plan to conduct a search for a new library director.”

Arkansas law states that a “county librarian” can only be appointed at the recommendation of the library board, if the board exists.

Saline County’s library board was created by a 1978 county ordinance, which said the board had “full and complete authority” to maintain the library and “the exclusive right and power” to purchase library materials.

The quorum court amended this ordinance in August, removing those phrases and adding “subject to oversight by the Saline County Judge.” The altered ordinance also requires the library board to submit all proposed changes to library policy to the county judge for approval, submit its annual budget to the quorum court for approval and obtain insurance policies in case of “claims that may be made due to actions or inactions” of the board and library administration.

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The amendment also removed a phrase that gave the library board “the power and duty to employ or remove” library employees and to control their salaries.

Ten of the 13 quorum court members sponsored the amendment. Keith Keck of District 13, one of the remaining three members and one of two to vote against it, said in July that he was concerned the proposal ran afoul of state law.

Brumley said in June that he believed the original ordinance conflicted with Amendment 55 of the Arkansas Constitution, which says the county judge is able to “hire county employees, except those persons employed by other elected officials of the county.”

Brumley also said he did not believe library administrators’ claim that amending the 1978 ordinance would run the risk of a $200,000 loss in state funding because the amendment would downgrade the library board from an administrative to an advisory body.

Two library board members resigned in June. The quorum court filled one of the vacancies later in June and the other in September.

Both the library board and the quorum court will meet Oct. 16.


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Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.