Macon will remain in Fontana Regional Library
After a contentious meeting with an outpouring of input from the public, Macon County commissioners have decided to work with the Fontana Regional Library system on the terms of its agreement rather than pulling out of the system altogether.
“It was unanimously agreed that the regional agreement is beneficial to all three counties and their citizens, but improvement is needed in the areas of parental empowerment and governance of the Fontana Regional Library System,” said Commission Chairman Paul Higdon.
Public turnout was so high at the Tuesday, April 11, meeting of the Macon County commissioners, that for safety concerns, some people were asked to leave. According to the fire marshal, there were originally about 170 people in the courtroom, which has a max occupancy of 136. More than 45 of those people had signed up for public comment and although it is within the rights of commissioners to limit the public comment period to no more than 30 minutes, Commissioner Josh Young suggested the board listen to the remainder of the public’s comments after concluding other business on the agenda. The rest of the commissioners agreed and, allowing five minutes for each speaker, the meeting lasted more than five hours — ending well past midnight.
The issue at hand was whether county commissioners would decide to pull Macon libraries out of the Fontana Regional Library system. The matter started to gain traction earlier this year when a group of Macon residents voiced their concerns over certain books containing LGBTQ themes and content in the Macon County Library. Most of these residents were not advocating for banning books, rather to segregate them to a section that would be indicative of their theme or label the books so that library patrons would know they contain LGBTQ content.
Some residents also advocated for Macon County to separate itself from FRL as well as the American Library Association, the national accreditation association for all librarians in state aid libraries. Residents were urging for separation from FRL largely because they feel the FRL Board of Trustees had not been receptive to their complaints.
Commissioner Danny Antoine took up the cause and during a March 14 commissioner meeting said he was working on pulling Macon County out of the system. He also asserted that his fellow commissioners were on board with his goals.
“For those of you who have stated about pulling out of the Fontana Regional System, believe me, I’m completely on board with that,” Antoine said. “It’s not a simple process. It is a hard process that we’re definitely working super hard on, trying to figure out how to do this the best way because you can’t just pull out of that system and leave the library hanging by itself. We have to have a system in place to be able to make sure that the library is functioning correctly.”
However, when residents showed up in force to voice their opinion on the library controversy April 11, Antoine appeared to walk back some of that intent. The speakers were relatively evenly split between those advocating for withdrawing from the FRL and segregating LGBTQ material, and those advocating to remain a part of the system. Those advocating to remain in the system argued that parents should be responsible for making sure their children don’t read material that is not age appropriate.
On more than one occasion, when a speaker came to the podium asking the commission to remain within the FRL, Commissioner Antoine indicated the board had no intention of pulling out.
“What do you think my intentions are with the library?” Commissioner Antoine asked after one member of the public spoke. “Would you like to know what my intentions are? I work with kids. My life’s work is working with kids. My life’s work is protecting kids. The only thing I brought up before the media turned this into a circus was not to allow pornography to fall into the hands of kids.”
During the meeting, Chairman of the Macon County Library Board of Trustees Bill Dyer addressed the board.
“I’ve listened and read as members of our community have expressed their views and opinions on these topics and their relevance to Macon County,” said Dyer. “As a result, I have come to the conclusion, I’m convinced, that neither remaining in Fontana Regional Library, or leaving, will resolve all of our disagreements and difficulties. Hopefully we will all be willing to choose what’s best for our community at large and work together toward that end.”
Dyer noted that the library is bound by state and federal law. He presented a report on the procedures, impacts and costs of leaving the FRL system, outlining what’s at stake. He said the library board strongly recommended remaining in the FRL system.
“The trustees feel that the effect of withdrawal is financially staggering and unduly burdensome, with absolutely no corresponding benefit to the citizens of our community or the library patrons,” Dyer said. “No library trustee board has ever received any oversight directives from the county commissioners. The current group of trustees is, however, receptive to considering directives that the board of commissioners adopt.”
Later in the meeting, Antoine again suggested that the county commission did not have intent to withdraw.
“I still don’t understand what’s in question about what’s going on with the library, to be perfectly honest,” Antoine said.
A member of the audience shouted that Mr. Antoine had said he was working on pulling out of the Fontana Regional Library System.
“That’s my personal opinion, first and foremost,” said Antoine. “Secondly, the board has not yet made a public statement as to which direction we’re going concerning the Fontana Regional Library, so there’s a lot of comments being made about us removing ourselves from the Fontana Regional Library, but yet there’s not been a comment that’s been made by the board itself concerning the direction.”
After listening to all public comments, Commissioner John Shearl voiced his opinion on the matter.
“I don’t remember having a conversation with these other four board members that we were going to leave the Fontana Regional Library, because I’ve stayed behind it and let Chairman Higdon and Commissioner Antoine handle this library thing,” said Shearl. “But it’s time that we board members let you guys know, if you guys want a compromise, that’s what I want, to compromise. Put these books where they belong, keep them out of the hands of children that are not age appropriate. That’s where I stand.”
The board then went into closed session. When it reconvened in open session, Higdon announced the commission would maintain membership of Macon County libraries in the FRL system but would work with FRL to create a better agreement between the regional system and local libraries.
According to Higdon’s statement, the three participating counties are looking into provisions that will give parents greater ability to set restrictions over what materials their minor children may check out while remaining in compliance with the law, as well as the structure and authority of the respective county library boards and the regional library board.
“The hope is that we will be able to present these proposed revisions to the local agreement to the three commissioner boards by mid to late August,” said Higdon.