In Wake of Library Board Shake-up, Book Removal Advocates Appear Emboldened

At the first ImagineIF trustee meeting following a controversial board appointment — pushing another trustee to resign in protest — public comment took a parental rights and anti-LGBTQ turn

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

Claiming he was the “tip of the spear for other dads in Flathead County,” Smith Valley School District board member Jim Riley spoke in support of actions taken by some ImagineIF Library Trustees to remove controversial LGBT-themed books from the shelves.

“The purpose of my attendance is to thank and support the efforts of the board members that have made it a priority to distinguish toxic materials that are available to children,” Riley said, kicking off a lengthy public comment period at the July 21 board meeting. “After personally reviewing books such as ‘Lawn Boy’ and ‘Gender Queer,’ I’m embarrassed for our culture and the direction that has allowed such materials to be available in a public setting.”

 The two books in question were subject to materials challenges brought before the board last fall. “Gender Queer” was first challenged by Carmen Cuthbertson, whose recent appointment to the trustee board sparked backlash amongst library supporters — leading to the resignation of Trustee Marsha Sultz from her post on the board. In January the Trustees unanimously voted to retain “Lawn Boy” in the collection while indefinitely postponing a decision on “Gender Queer.” Both books are part of the library’s adult collection.

Riley said in an email to the Beacon that he understood the board’s previous decisions were based on the policies they had to work with at the time. Several policies governing the materials collection have been revised in recent months, though removing a book from the collection would still likely face legal challenges.

“It is our hope that our voices are heard and they will respectfully make future decisions based on our input,” Riley said.

During the meeting, another community member, Tom Finkel, took issue with the contested collection materials, saying they promoted an LGBTQ agenda in a public setting.

“I feel very strongly that all this LGBTQ+ and transgender push that’s been on our nation is a negative thing for children,” Finkel said. “If you look at the data, the statistics, these children have a higher rate of mental problems. They have a higher rate of issues, and it just should not be normative. And we can’t make it normative by putting this material in the public library.”

Cover of the book “Gender Queer,” by Maia Kobabe.

Other community members who agreed with Riley and Finkel offered up donations to the library — the first time donating to a library for all of them — to help replace some funding recently lost by the library and its nonprofit fundraising arm the ImagineIF Library Foundation. Last month, the Foundation was blocked from participating in the Great Fish Community Challenge due to the recent actions of the trustees. The annual fundraising challenge amounts to roughly 2% of the Library Foundation’s budget.

Multiple members of the public questioned the integrity of Adam Tunnel, the Foundation’s executive director, who recently sent out a fundraising email calling the recent actions by trustees and county commissioners “misguided,” while reiterating the Foundation’s support for ImagineIF.

Riley told the Beacon he thought Tunnel and the media’s continued highlighting of lost funding was “punitive in nature.”

Still, the public comment period underscored the growing political interest in the county’s library system. Riley is the founder of the Liberty or Lose Political Action Committee, which supports Montana candidates with conservative values. One of the PAC’s 2022 action items includes electing community members to library boards, city council and law enforcement agencies, and Riley’s wife, Samantha, stated her intention to apply for the open trustee seat vacated by Sultz.

“This is a value issue, it’s a cultural issue,” said former Kalispell city councilman Rod Kuntz, who runs a political consulting group with Riley. “It’s time we turn things around because a lot of us haven’t been paying attention… this is our Castle Doctrine for the values of our community.”  

When asked about his sudden interest in the library, Riley said he had “been quiet for too long during the erosion of our culture here locally.”

“I do see us paying more attention to the changes we are seeing in society and being active in the protection of our families,” Riley said.

One lone member of the public, John Mimnaugh, offered a perspective that ran counter to the crowd’s objections.

“I want all the objectionable material and I want my daughter to have access to all of it,” Mimnaugh said. “The stuff that angers everybody else? The library should have all of it.”

Photo by Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Following public comment, the trustees continued with a low-key, though prolonged, meeting as the four-member board reviewed budgets, updates from the director and library foundation and a number of library policies.

The biggest change to the public’s use of the library came with a revision of policy 2011-06, Safety of Children, where trustees raised the minimum age a child can be in the library without an adult in attendance from nine to 11.

Director Ashley Cummins said the change was recommended by a staff librarian.

“She just thought welcoming and encouraging unattended children was probably not in our best benefit,” Cummins said. “We absolutely can accommodate them and encourage their use of the library, but we don’t want parents just dropping off their kids.”        

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