Library Trustees Address Points of Contention with Staff

Trustees shared draft letter to staff that suggested library was “too liberal” according to county commissioners

By Micah Drew
Library advisor Ben Mason shelves books at ImagineIF Library in Kalispell on Oct. 8, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The ImagineIF library board of trustees at their Feb. 24 meeting voted to share a letter with library staff addressing concerns that have arisen in recent months over controversial actions taken by the board.

“As a board, we have been having difficult conversations and making decisions that challenge the status quo,” the letter reads. “That is a source of stress as you navigate these changes.”

The letter touched on several points of contention, including the relationship between the library director and the trustees, the Bigfork library branch capital improvement project and a discussion between Trustee Chair Heidi Roedel and the county human resources director over potential layoffs.

In the initial draft of the letter it also addressed the relationship between the board of trustees and the county.

“The library board is a governing and autonomous board. The county commissioners have indicated that there is a perception that the library isn’t welcoming to all and that the library has a strong liberal bent,” the letter stated. “There is a desire from the Commissioners and other community members for the library to move more toward the center and be more balanced.”

Those sentences, however, were later removed after a discussion.

“I think the directive to move the library more toward the center negates the first statement that you’re an autonomous board,” senior librarian Sean Anderson said during the meeting. “It feels very much to staff that you are following marching orders that have been given by the Commission.”

“And most importantly, moving more toward the center is not revising policy so deeply that it gives you the power to remove books based on their content. That is not a move towards the center, that’s an extreme move against standard library practice,” Anderson continued. “Moving towards the center is a conversation that can be had, but moving to an extreme position on one side or the other is not a conversation.”        

Trustee Doug Adams said that the wording came from notes taken during the trustees’ retreat on Feb. 16, and while he did not speak for the commissioners, it reflected his impression of their thoughts.

In conversations with the Beacon, individual commissioners have said some members of the public feel unwelcome at the library.

 The letter to staff also reaffirmed the trustees’ support for the new Bigfork library, an ongoing project to upgrade the existing branch.

The ImagineIF Library Foundation purchased the 6,000-square-foot building known as the Ark in 2018 and is currently in the midst of a capital campaign to raise $1.6 million to renovate it.

Before the new building can be utilized, either the trustees or Flathead County must accept ownership of the property, something the county commissioners have expressed concerns over.

On Feb. 1, the commissioners sent a letter to the library board reiterating they were not ready to commit to assuming responsibility of the property.

Trustee Adams, who has been a main go-between to the commissioners on discussions over the property transfer, said there was a misunderstanding when the trustees sent over a draft property transfer document in January.

Adams said once the commissioners are presented with an appraisal of the property, the expected maintenance and staffing expenses for the new building and once the incoming director can take part in the discussions, he sees the conversation moving forward. The new library director, Ashley Cummins, will start in her role on March 7.

On the other side of the issue, the ImagineIF Foundation has said the recent actions of the trustees and the seemingly stalled momentum on the Bigfork branch have created some fundraising problems.

At the beginning of the trustee’s meeting, Foundation President Sara Busse read a letter to the trustees that she said was denied inclusion in the meeting’s public documents. The letter stated that a handful of donors canceled or withheld year-end gifts due to “trustee mismanagement.”

“Reputational damage to ImagineIF harms our ability to effectively fundraise and promote the positive impact of public library, and we’re already feeling the fallout,” the letter read. “Our Foundation mission does not require us to support actions or decisions by the Board of Trustees that inhibit or degrade library services.”

The Foundation is currently undergoing a search for a new executive director after Charlotte Housel resigned in February.

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