An open position on the ImagineIF Library Board of Trustees has invited increased politicization of what is traditionally a nonpartisan board tasked with overseeing a community resource.
The five-member board has come under scrutiny in the past year as disagreements over the public library’s philosophy and role in the community led to the resignation of the previous director as well as the interim director, who specifically cited the hostility of the trustees as a reason for leaving. With the board’s longest-serving member, Connie Leistiko, slated to step down this month due to term limits, the selection of the next trustee is stirring controversy among supporters of the library.
As the board’s political gulf widens, Leistiko has emerged as a reliable ally to the library in recent months. For example, she has routinely cast minority votes against lowering staff salaries, against hiring a director who does not meet Montana State standards, and against the removal of the book “Gender Queer” from ImagineIF’s collection materials.
In an effort to select her replacement, the trustees interviewed a record 11 applicants for the position on June 10, ultimately voting to recommend three candidates: Jake Fulkerson (unanimous), Jane Wheeler (4-1) and Carmen Cuthbertson (3-2)
This week the Flathead County Republican Central Committee (FCRCC) circulated an email with a “call to action” memo requesting support for Cuthbertson’s bid to join the trustee board. Cuthbertson submitted the original complaint against “Gender Queer” and has attended almost every trustee meeting over the last eight months, speaking out against the book and in favor of its removal from the collection.
The email, originally drafted by the Flathead County Republican Women (FCRW), asked members to call and email the county commissioners to show support for Cuthbertson. “Allegations of “book banning’ have been thrown around by liberals against conservatives who simply want to protect children in the library environment,” the email stated. “Carmen Cuthbertson, a member of FCRW, has stood strong against the liberal influences attempting to take hold of the public library system.”
The move is similar to 2021 when the Flathead County Republicans took the unusual step of endorsing a slate of candidates for the nonpartisan school board election in Kalispell.
The recent politicization of libraries is not unique to the Flathead Valley, as conservative activists have challenged books and lobbied to change the governing structure of library boards across the nation.
“When boards become politicized, there are problems because they either favor one group over another or start to spend taxpayer money in less-than-transparent ways,” John Chakstra, executive director of the nonpartisan PAC EveryLibrary told the Washington Post. “If a board is motivated by political ideology or a religious agenda, it stops being a public institution because it does not serve the whole public.”
Until recently, ImagineIF Trustee Chair Heidi Roedel was president of the FCRW, and served as the communication chair of the FCRCC. She noted the email came from current president Evelyn Cahalen, who could not be reached for comment.
“I would hope that every board member knows that they represent the community as a whole,” Roedel said.
Roedel also pointed out that other organizations endorsed trustee candidates, specifically the Flathead County Library Alliance (FCLA), an advocacy group founded this year to “hold library trustees accountable and increase awareness of the importance of public libraries.”
The FCLA sent out its own newsletter supporting Fulkerson and Wheeler, while calling Cuthbertson’s recommendation “problematic.” They also alluded to a potential ethical violation arising from a $400 political donation from Cuthbertson to Trustee David Ingram’s primary campaign for House District 7 this spring, which neither Cuthbertson nor Ingram disclosed during trustee applicant interviews.
“As I saw it did not provide me any advantage, I did not feel a conflict that would require me to recuse myself,” Ingram said at a June 22 trustee meeting.
Speaking at the same meeting, Cuthbertson pointed out that she and her husband also donated $500 to Ingram’s Republican primary opponent. Cuthbertson pushed back against the FCLA letter, calling the group “misguided,” “stupid” and “malicious.”
“Frankly the FCLA is desperate to make our library a political football in a game that I refuse to play,” she said.
Cuthbertson applied to be a library trustee in 2021 but was not recommended to the commissioners by the board of trustees. The county commissioners are not bound by the recommendations made by the trustees and will appoint one of the 11 applicants at their June 30 meeting.