Montana State Library Commissioner Resigns, Citing ImagineIF Support

Bruce Newell said he wanted to avoid any conflict of interest from his support for the recently formed Flathead County Library Alliance

By Micah Drew
ImagineIf Library in Columbia Falls. Beacon file photo

Bruce Newell, the former chair and longest serving member of the Montana State Library (MSL) Commission, resigned Feb. 9, citing the “alarming and heartbreaking events” taking place within Flathead County’s ImagineIF library system and his support for the newly formed Flathead County Library Alliance (FCLA). Newell had served as a commissioner since 2014, and, with his current term up in June, had applied for reappointment with Gov. Greg Gianforte, which he has withdrawn.

In a letter shared with the statewide library community, as well as in comments made at the Feb. 9 MSL commissioners meeting, Newell described his concerns over actions taken by the ImagineIF board of trustees that have diminished a library he said once was “one of the best public libraries in the United States.”

“That’s not just a polite phrase, they’ve always been as good as it gets,” he told the commission.

Newell then detailed a 2018 visit to the area to discover ImagineIF’s “secret sauce” of success.

“Why was ImagineIF consistently such a good library?” he wrote. “Clearly it wasn’t due to their ageing, inadequate buildings. Their budget was insufficient to their mission. They were perennially short staffed. So how did they do it?”

 After meeting with then director Kim Crowley, along with now former directors Connie Behe and Martha Furman, Newell said he learned that the library’s success was built on a foundation of trust between staff, the board’s trustees and its community.

“Trust on all those levels allowed ImagineIF to operate with excellence for decades. Through successive improvement it became (literally) a world-class public library. It hired and retained fantastic directors. It was blessed with an extraordinary staff. It had a vibrant Friends group and an enviable Foundation. And as you’d expect, ImagineIF always had a great library board, one that played its role with fidelity, imagination and courage.

“While there are clearly differences in perspective among ImagineIF board members, and I don’t wish to assign individual blame, I am heartbroken at how rapidly the ImagineIF board, as a whole, has lost the trust it enjoyed for decades.”

The Flathead County Library Alliance formed in response to the actions taken by the ImagineIF board and has been actively seeking supporters and donations for weeks, including filming a video in support of ImagineIF during a rally on Feb. 5.

The organization’s stated objectives are to protect and grow the library, hold the trustees accountable for their fiduciary responsibilities, and hold the county commissioners responsible for their appointed board members. When the organization officially announced its formation on Thursday, it counted more than 150 members.

Newell said that when he heard FCLA was seeking donations to advocate for ImagineIF, he and his wife, who is also a retired librarian, felt compelled to contribute to the cause. To avoid any conflicts of interest within his role as an MSL commissioner, he opted to resign his position.

“For decades, ImagineIF has always been a spectacular library. Across the state we’ve looked at what they’ve done, admired what they’ve done, and tried to emulate what they’ve done,” Newell said in an interview with the Beacon. “I just thought that if this could happen at ImagineIF, one of the best public libraries in the country, then it could happen to any library in the state. It was time to speak up.”

After Newell made his decision to resign, he learned Flathead County commissioners had sent the MSL commission a letter requesting a discussion over ImagineIF’s pending loss of certification be added to a future agenda.

The loss of certification is due to the ImagineIF trustees’ recent hire of a new director who does not have a master’s degree in library science, a requirement for libraries servicing a community of more than 25,000 people.  Without certification, ImagineIF is disqualified from receiving more than $35,000 in state funds.

The commissioners’ letter states that since several of ImagineIF’s senior staff do hold master’s degrees, the leadership’s cumulative education should be considered. “The education required for certification, as a body of dedicated library professionals, is more than present to effectively operate, frankly, a modest library system here in Flathead County,” they wrote.

The matter will be discussed at the state library commission at its April 13 meeting.

ImagineIF Board of Trustees Chair Heidi Roedel said in an email that there had been no discussion by the trustees about the certification issue or the letter send by the commissioners.

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