Buck the system: Macon recommends changes to Fontana Regional Library agreement
With the 10-year Fontana Regional Library agreement up for review, commissions in all three counties are considering changes to the document.
Last week, the Macon County Commission unanimously passed a resolution to amend the Fontana Regional Library agreement per a set of agreed upon changes.
“We’ve been doing this since January, this has not been an easy process, it’s been a very difficult process,” said Commissioner Danny Antoine
At this point the recommendations are only that — recommendations. They will now be forwarded to Jackson and Swain counties for review. All three counties will have to agree on any of the proposed changes before they make it into a final version of the Fontana Regional Library Agreement.
Fontana Regional Library formed in 1944 when the Tennessee Valley Authority sponsored a regional bookmobile to visit the most remote areas of Jackson, Macon and Swain counties.
Today, the system offers full library services to rural counties that might not otherwise be able to fund them. By combining cataloging, human resources, finance departments and information technology services for libraries in the three counties, it is cheaper for each county than if they were to provide for each of those departments individually. The regional agreement is renewed every 10 years and can be dissolved or withdrawn from at any time.
The current issue regarding the library system erupted around the discussion of a small number of books in the Macon County library, almost all of which are intended for younger audiences and contain LGBTQ+ content. Commissioner Danny Antoine has repeatedly referred to these books as “pornographic material.”
In February, a group of Macon County residents and library patrons attended a library board meeting to air a plethora of concerns. Chief among them were that the library is promoting a sexual agenda to minors and the library’s affiliation with the American Library Association and the Fontana Regional Library System . While this group did not argue for banning any books from the library, many did propose sequestering books with LGBTQ+ content in some way.
From that point, the discussion turned into an effort to pull the Macon County Library out of the Fontana Regional Library system altogether . Commissioner Danny Antoine quickly became a leader in the push for removal.
“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 during a March 14 commissioner meeting. “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.”
Due in part to the complicated nature of the move and the costs associated with removing itself from the Fontana Regional Library — under the current agreement, any assets that were purchased by FRL would remain the property of FRL, not Macon County — Macon County ultimately decided to remain in the system. However, commissioners did request that county managers in Macon, Jackson and Swain counties meet to review the FRL agreement.
The review by county managers resulted in one proposed change to the system, being that commissioners would have direct appointment power over the Fontana Regional Library system’s Board of Trustees. Previously, commissioners appointed members to the local library boards, who then appointed someone from among their own board to serve on the FRL board.
Now, each county commission is reviewing the agreement and proposing any changes they see fit.
Macon commissioners are proposing several changes to the FRL document. The first change adds the words “in a socially and politically neutral manner” to the end of the purpose statement, which otherwise describes the purpose of providing “excellent library services” to residents in all three counties.
Several changes have to do with membership on the Fontana Regional Library Board of Trustees. One proposed change states that all nine members “shall be full-time, year-round residents of the county from which they are appointed.” Those members would also serve four-year terms instead of the current six-year terms. The Fontana Regional Library members were previously appointed from the membership of each respective county. The county is recommending they be appointed by the county commissioners, who may select from recommendations made by the county library board or the community at large.
Similarly, vacancies on the Fontana Regional Library Board of Trustees would no longer be filled by the appropriate local library advisory board, but by appointment from the county commissioners.
The last addition to the rules about membership on the FRL board reads, “any time that a majority of the commissioners determine that a library trustee from their county has failed to abide by the library’s by-laws and policies, they may be removed by the commissioners from that county.”
“The county commissioners already appoint the local Macon County public library board which then in turn selects from those board members whom they would like to the FRL board. So, truly, the board of county commissioners already has the power to appoint the members of the FRL board who represent Macon County,” said Heather Johnson, of Otto, during public comment. “The proposed changes are redundant and unnecessary. So why do they feel the need to increase their control over this public institution? They will claim it is because of taxpayer funding on the part of the library’s budget. But I venture to suggest that it is because they want to be able to appoint, replace and remove board members at the whim of the commissioner board when those board members don’t agree with the extremist new board of commissioners.”
The proposed changes also outline rules for open meetings, public records and public comment. All library board meetings have to be conducted in accordance with the North Carolina Open Meetings laws, must be videotaped, archived on the library’s website and accessible by the public at all times.
Community members have complained about the lack of spoken public comments at all library board meetings. Changes to the rules would require a public comment period before each library board meeting with no less than three minutes allowed per speaker. The comment period will be limited to 45 minutes, but the board may allow for additional time. The proposed change also says, “the public shall be permitted to ask questions for clarification directly through the chair, who shall attempt to answer to the best of his or her ability.”
Other proposed changes include drafting a resolution of intent to consider amendments to by-laws prior to passing them to make time for a public hearing on any proposed amendments; posting the Fontana Regional Library director’s job description to the website, posting the approved FRL budget to the website as well as the proposed budget for 30 days prior to approval; and posting all audits to FRL’s website.
Previously, if a local library decided to withdraw from the FRL, assets purchased by the FRL collectively would remain assets of the FRL. The proposed change states “should that participating local governmental unit fully withdraw, assets located in the local library facility will remain the assets of the withdrawing library.”
In his comments, Commissioner Josh Young advocated for this portion of the document because it is Macon County taxpayers that support the FRL system.
“We just went through that with volunteer fire department contracts where all the assets purchased in the department stay in that community,” said Young. “I feel like this is similar. The taxpayers of Macon County purchased the assets.”
The county also recommended changes to the provisions for termination of the agreement, which previously said the agreement could be terminated “if reasonable cause is presented in writing by any member of the FRL to other members of the FRL.” With the proposed changes that “reasonable cause” would no longer be required for withdrawal.
While the issue surrounding the Fontana Regional Library system and Macon County’s participation in that system has been going on for some time now, often via contentious debate, seven people took to the pulpit to voice their concerns during the Nov. 14 meeting of the county commission. Of those, five people argued for minimizing the changes to a system they see as working efficiently for the county, and two spoke in favor of the proposed changes.
“The FRL system works perfectly without anyone trying to overhaul the system,” said Missy Baste.
All five people speaking against the proposed changes expressed a similar sentiment.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And the Macon County library system along with the Fontana Regional Library system work wonderfully for the communities they serve over three counties,” said Johnston. “But the Macon County Board of Commissioners are attempting to usurp the Macon County library board and the Fontana Regional Library board because some county commissioners, along with religious extremists in the area have failed to shove their extremism down the throats of Macon County through legal means.”
Another Otto resident spoke to what she sees as the importance of diverse representation in literature.
“Never have I felt unwelcome or threatened by any display or book which seem to be at the root of this new change,” said Sarah Johnson. “We should remember that equal representation in literature helps us understand reality, helps us discover other cultures and their way of thinking and hopefully empathy. It creates a team environment where ideas are diverse, perspectives varied, and everyone feels valued.”
Johnson said that the free services and programs offered through Fontana Regional Library are “a boon to homeschooling mother’s like me.”
Jim Gaston and one other man spoke in favor of the proposed changes to the FRL board.
“Just as any bureaucracy or government department will become self-serving if given the chance, it’s perfectly reasonable to rein in agreements with third parties to ensure accountability,” said Gaston. “As you know libraries across the entire country, not just Macon County, suddenly went off the rails nearly three years ago because activist members of the ALA began targeting minors with DEI and sexual propaganda.”
Gaston went on to say that if the FRL system rejects changes proposed by the county commissioners, “it proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Fontana was never willing to compromise for the good of the community and leaders were following the divisive American Library Association.”
Antoine again repeated his claims that there are pornographic materials in the library and insisted that all proposed changes to the FRL agreement are for the benefit and protection of children.
“With this agreement, a lot of things have been blown out of proportion. The reasons why we even went through this have been completely overlooked. All of this in my mindset, in my thought process started out with the fact that pornographic books are being distributed to kids through the library,” said Antoine. “This is about protecting kids, from my standpoint. Anybody has any questions, please come and ask me, come have a conversation. I get that we may not all agree, I understand that. But that doesn’t mean that everything has to turn into a circus where everything is about hate. Stop listening to the media with all that nonsense. I’ll say it again, stop listening to the media with all that nonsense. We have common sense; use it.”
After a brief shouting match between a member of the public and Commissioner Antoine, Commissioner Josh Young offered more even-tempered input.
“When I saw Ms. Lampkin, she made the comment, ‘if this was in good faith, this is a good document,’ and for me, it’s in good faith.” said Young. “I think this contract is healthy for Macon County. Mr. Ridenhour did a fantastic job and I think this is fair. And I just want to go on record and say it’s in good faith on my behalf.”