Library Board Gets Back to the Books

By Beacon Staff

The Flathead County Library System has a full board again, bringing a degree of closure to a summer of uncertainty.

On Aug. 14, Flathead County commissioners filled the three remaining board positions, appointing Kristi Hatfield to the Columbia Falls opening, Connie Leistiko to the Kalispell seat and Terry Peterson to the Whitefish spot. The board now has all five members in place and will resume its regular monthly meetings beginning on Aug. 28. Prior to the first meeting, there will be an orientation to transition the new members into their positions.

The appointments come more than a month after the commissioners voted not to reappoint Anne Moran at a July 2 meeting, leading to the dissolution of the board. Following the Moran decision, board chairman Jerry Hanson and Kala Lougheed resigned, leaving newly appointed Jane Lopp and Laura Long as the only two board members. Long transferred from the Whitefish seat to the Bigfork position and Lopp is the member-at-large.

Long, the board’s chairwoman following Hanson’s resignation, hopes the new board signals a fresh start for the county and its library system. The Kalispell main library and the Bigfork branch still need new homes.

“The time has just come for the county to put priority on the library and education for everybody,” Long said.

The July 2 fallout was the culmination of a difficult and occasionally tumultuous year for the library board. Last December, the board voted 3-2 against moving the Kalispell library out of its current overcrowded location on First Avenue East into the abandoned Tidyman’s grocery store building. The three dissenting votes were Moran, Lougheed and Hanson, with Long and David Hilde voting in favor. Hilde later resigned.

Today the future of the main library is still unclear. It has almost no parking for visitors and pushes, or exceeds, the limits of capacity on a regular basis. As for Bigfork, taxpayers have voted down three bond proposals to expand the small library there.

Officials hope to find a building of more than 50,000 square feet to house the Kalispell library. The current location is 23,250 square feet, while Tidyman’s is 52,000. At the time of the December vote, the dissenting voters argued the price tag was excessive and cited concern over fuel leakage in the soil stemming from when Burlington Northern Railroad owned the property.

Following the Tidyman’s vote, a frustrated Hilde argued that if the property was clean enough to harbor a grocery store, it was suitable for a library. Joe Unterreiner, president of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, also expressed dismay at the decision, saying at the time: “At the end of the day, they still need 50 to 60 thousand square feet and this site still meets that.”

Long, the board’s chairwoman following Hanson’s resignation, said she’s relieved to have a board intact. Now, she said, the library system can move forward in its regular duties, not the least of which are finding homes for the libraries in Kalispell and Bigfork.

“I’m very excited about being able to get back to business and see what’s in the future and end this unpleasantness we’ve been experiencing,” Long said.

Long hopes Columbia Falls will serve as a model for Kalispell and Bigfork. The First Best Place Task Force, a citizens group heavily involved in civic work in Columbia Falls, recently closed a deal to purchase the First Citizens Bank building in downtown to house the library there.

“I’m very excited about what’s going on in Columbia Falls and I’m quite impressed with that community,” Long said.