Flathead County

Library Board Appointment Sparks Backlash

Longest-serving trustee resigns in wake of newest board appointment; charity organization strikes library foundation from community giving campaign

By Micah Drew
ImagineIF Library in Kalispell on March 14, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Flathead County commissioners unanimously voted to appoint Carmen Cuthbertson to the ImagineIF Library Board of Trustees at their June 30 meeting, elevating a controversy that has shrouded board activities for nearly a year and inviting immediate backlash.

The trustee board is now exclusively made up of individuals — Dave Ingram, Doug Adams, Heidi Roedel and Cuthbertson — who have indicated a desire to alter library policies and remove certain materials, including the graphic novel “Gender Queer,” from ImagineIF.

In the wake of Cuthbertson’s appointment, trustee Marsha Sultz resigned her post, citing growing divisions and a lack of respect among sitting trustees. Sultz was one of two trustees who emerged as an oppositional force to the board’s conservative majority, voting against measures to lower library staff salaries and remove materials from the ImagineIF collection.

“I just can’t stomach the direction they’re taking the library,” Sultz said Thursday. “This is going to be a lightning rod of divisiveness in this county.”

A record 11 candidates applied for the open board position vacated by Connie Leistiko, who was first appointed in 2008 and is term limited. The current trustees made three recommendations to the commissioners after interviewing all the applicants.

Cuthbertson first applied last year to serve in the trustee seat currently held by David Ingram. Although Cuthbertson was not among the applicants recommended to the commissioners last year, she received a 3-2 vote of support this year, with Sultz and Leistiko voting in opposition. 

“I was disheartened with this selection because I feel there is a need on the board for people who are very knowledgeable about the way libraries are run and very knowledgeable about how boards are run,” Leistiko said. “They had the opportunity to select several people from that list of 11 that definitely had a great deal of knowledge and experience with libraries and the laws they’re governed by.”

The commissioners had minimal discussion over the appointment and did not respond to requests for comment following the meeting.

Carmen Cuthbertson at an ImagineIF Library board of trustees meeting in Kalispell on Dec. 2, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Over the last 10 months Cuthbertson has been a vocal attendee at library trustee meetings, routinely offering public comments. She was also the main proponent for removing the book “Gender Queer” from the library’s collection after filing a book challenge last fall.

“I am in favor of removing this book from the library, not because it is a book about a gender queer person, but because it is a poorly written, childishly illustrated jumble of nightmarish recollections,” Cuthbertson said during a meeting in which trustees tabled a vote to remove the book. All copies of the book remain in the collection, and Cuthbertson has stated she will recuse herself from any discussions or votes on “Gender Queer.”. 

Although Cuthbertson acknowledged that her new role as a trustee might be polarizing within the community (a local advocacy group called the Flathead County Library Alliance formed in response to recent trustee actions, dubbed Cuthbertson’s appointment “problematic”) the Kalispell resident invited her critics to “come talk to me and share their concerns. Respectful discussions go both ways.”

Cuthbertson’s appointment carries political overtones following an email sent by the Flathead County Republican Central Committee on June 22 which included a “call to action” memo requesting letters of support for Cuthbertson’s appointment. This was the first time a local political party has endorsed a trustee candidate for the library board. The local politicization of a library board appointment reflects a nationwide trend of conservative activists and government officials challenging books and lobbying to alter the governing structure of libraries.

“My question is why are they weighing in? Why do they want to control the library?” said John Chrastka, executive director of EveryLibrary, a national political action committee for libraries. “If a board is motivated by a political or religious ideology it’s no longer serving the whole public. The nature of decision-making is influenced if the governing board that sets policy is partisan.”

A crowd fills the meeting room at ImagineIF Library in Kalispell for a board of trustees meeting on Dec. 2, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Adding to the negative consequences stemming from library trustee actions, the ImagineIF Library Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising arm of the county library, was blocked from participating in the Great Fish Community Challenge, according to emails obtained by the Beacon.

The annual fundraising campaign organized by the Whitefish Community Foundation (WCF) offers nonprofits in Flathead County the chance to raise money with matching grants up to $20,000. Last year the ImagineIF Foundation raised $41,150 in the fundraiser. Out of 78 applicants, the ImagineIF Foundation was one of seven nonprofits not invited to participate in the 2022 Challenge.

The WCF wrote that they were “aware of recent decisions made by the ImagineIF Libraries Board of Trustees which directly impact library funding. While ImagineIF Library Foundation has taken strides to distance itself from the situation, it is difficult for us to fund your programs and remain accountable to our donors.”

This isn’t the first time the board’s actions have resulted in a loss of funding for ImagineIF. Earlier this year, the trustees approved hiring a library director who does not meet Montana public library standards, a decision that cost Flathead County more than $35,000 in state aid.

Adam Tunnell, executive director of the ImagineIF Foundation, sent an email to the library trustees and county commissioners on June 27 sharing the Foundation’s concerns and stating that “a course correction is required for us to effectively do our work.”

“My hope was to show that the actions of the trustees have consequences for the Foundation’s ability to effectively raise funds,” Tunnell told the Beacon. “Their actions are being noticed.”

Tunnell said Cuthbertson’s appointment to the board was disappointing and “not the course correction we hoped for.”

“We have to be responsible to our donors and supporters, who are the donors and supporters of ImagineIF,” Tunnell said. “We have to wait and see what the actions of this new board of trustees entail before we determine our path forward.”

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