Flathead County

Loss of Library Leadership Reflects Escalating Tensions with Trustees

Two weeks after ImagineIF Director Ashley Cummins interviewed for a new position in Oregon, Assistant Director Sean Anderson announced he’s resigning at the end of the month

By Micah Drew
ImagineIF Library Senior Librarian Sean Anderson attends an ImagineIF Library board of trustees meeting in Kalispell on Dec. 2, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

ImagineIF Libraries Assistant Director Sean Anderson is resigning his post at Flathead County’s public library system in favor of a job with the Montana State Library, a departure he attributes to the dysfunctional environment created by the library trustees and county commissioners.

Anderson’s resignation marks the fourth leadership position vacated in 18 months due to escalating tensions between board members and library staff.

“There is no singular reason for me making this change, but rather a growing unease and dissatisfaction with components of my work,” Anderson wrote in an email to staff and trustees, a copy of which the Beacon has obtained. “This is largely due to the ongoing toxicity with the library board, the County Commissioners, and the impact that their influence has had on our collective ability to offer free, fair, and excellent library services.”

Over the last year, Anderson has emerged as a vocal advocate for library staff, operations and philosophy in the face of an increasingly partisan board that has attempted to remove materials dealing with gender, sexuality and race from the library’s collection. The assistant director publicly clashed with trustees at board meetings over library policy and remained a staunch defender against censoring material during the library’s succession of four book challenges over the last year.

This fall, the trustees asked Anderson not to attend the board meetings in an official capacity unless his presence is specifically requested.

“My being dis-invited from board meetings is an indication to me that my feedback to the board is no longer received with any amount of respect, much less having the impact that I wish it did in steering their decisions,” Anderson wrote. “I remain concerned about legal and ethical liabilities being generated by this board and County Leadership.”

Emails and documents obtained by the Beacon continue to reveal how the library trustees — and, by extension, the county commissioners who appointed them — have created a work environment that staff, as well as members of the public, feel runs counter to the library’s public mission.

For example, as ImagineIF staff and trustees begin developing a strategic long-term plan for the library, they surveyed staff and members of the community to gauge the library’s successes, needs and areas of growth. Of the 389 members of the public that responded to the survey, 103 of them included comments that were critical of the board of trustees, the county commissioners, or which related to the consequences of recent board actions, including the series of staff departures. Only two responses expressed pro-board sentiment.

“Small-minded decisions to undermine staff, support censorship and divisiveness, hire unqualified leadership, loss of funding, etc… are appalling. The current state of things is an embarrassing reflection of our county,” wrote one anonymous respondent.

Similarly, 42% of staff members stated in their anonymous survey responses that they viewed the library board or the county as unsupportive.

Ashley Cummins, ImagineIF Libraries Director, attends a library board meeting in Columbia Falls on Oct. 27, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

In October, ImagineIF Library Director Ashley Cummins interviewed for a job as a library director in Seaside, Oregon, after a recruiter sought her out.

“It’s been a very stressful time,” Cummins said of her experience at ImagineIF, according to a report published in the Seaside Signal. “I don’t feel they’re in search of a resolution to their problems.”

Cummins mentioned the strong community response to board actions, including her own hire, and characterized the board as a microcosm of the “culture wars in our country.”

Neither Cummins nor the other candidate interviewed was selected for the Seaside position. In an email to ImagineIF staff clarifying her decision to apply, Cummins said she was not actively seeking alternative employment, but was “exploring various options as they present themselves.”

“I’ve become increasingly frustrated with the requirements of my job, the constant negativity and the insulting public comments,” Cummins wrote in the email obtained by the Beacon. “My hiring has cost the library far too much and continues to do so. I can’t even be upset when the community continues to express their outrage and dismay at my position.”

Cummins added that she intends to finish out the remainder of her contract and would consider remaining, “if things were to improve.”

“Here I sit, 2,167 miles away from [family] and for what? To be constantly manipulated and publicly insulted? To be used as a pawn in a political game? To not be allowed to do my job in the manner I see fit?” according to the email to staff.

ImagineIF Libraries Trustee Board Chair Doug Adams likened the turnover in leadership to changes in an administration at the state or national level.

“A lot of people who work with a previous administration end up leaving if they don’t like the changes that have been made,” he said. “I don’t think this is anything different than that.”

Adams added that that Anderson’s passion and experience would be a great fit in his new role with MSL.

“Through all the changes that have been made, our dedication to serving the patrons has not wavered,” Adams said. “Even our detractors would have to admit, there has been no lack of services for the public and that speaks to itself.”

Asked about the consequences of trustee actions, the Flathead County Commission responded that they had selected trustees “on their ability to address two areas of public concern — fiscal stewardship and patron security.”

“To this end, we are heartened by the decisions and improvements the Board of Trustees have made to those areas,” the commission wrote in a statement. “The Board of Commissioners is aware of declining employee engagement at the ImagineIF Library. We encourage the ImagineIF Board of Trustees to collaborate with the ImagineIF Director to address this.”

Meanwhile, Anderson and Cummins said they are working with library leadership to make his transition away from ImagineIF as nondisruptive as possible. Speaking to the Beacon, Anderson expressed a mixture of excitement for his new position, and sadness for leaving ImagineIF after so many years.

“I helped build this thing, so there’s a real sense of mourning to watch it be dismantled,” Anderson said. “It’s just not my fight anymore.