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In search of “compromise,” officials plan to compromise autonomy of Prattville library

The current course of challenges against the Prattville public library is likely to end with the library defunded.

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On Friday night, Mayor Bill Gillespie, three members of the Prattville city council and Prattville citizens, Angie Hayden and Chuk Shirley, sat around a table looking at a contract for services for the Autauga-Prattville Public Library (APPL).

The library has never had such a contract before in the nearly 50 years since its current iteration was established by charter. But after months of public criticism by members of Clean Up Prattville, represented here by Chuk Shirley, it appears that council members and commissioners have been working behind the scenes to reach a “compromise.” 

It’s a term that Angie Hayden, representing “Read Freely Prattville” in support of the library’s actions, said was thrown around often during the meeting.

APPL director Andrew Foster said the only “compromise” to be found in the drafted contract is the compromise of the library’s autonomy.

“With the way that the library and the library board is set up, it is meant to be an autonomous entity separate from the city and county; that way we are not going to be influenced by politics or otherwise, but for the library to be the best library we can make it,” Foster said. “This contract was forcing a lot of autonomy out of our hands … It’s a document written by non-librarians about how to run a library. It completely invalidated the years of education I have and others on my staff have to do our jobs and serve our community to the best of our ability.”

With the contract tied to funding, Foster said asking the library board to sign the contract amounts to an ultimatum.

“It absolutely feels like one,” Foster said. “It’s either a bluff to get the library to cave, or their statement of ‘Our way or the highway.’ I truly hope it’s not the second, with how many people in our community that would affect negatively. At this point, I’ve been asked and I’ve been pushed to compromise, in several ways, my professional principles. While I’m willing to be lenient, and while I’ve worked toward solutions such as the ‘new adult’ section and cooperation with the book ordering moratorium at the request of the city and county— I don’t plan to compromise myself for what is being demanded, which is to create gates against access to make it more difficult for our patrons to find what they want because a small subset feels it should be inaccessible.”

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Foster was referencing an earlier version of the contract than the one discussed by the group Friday. The meeting did not violate Alabama’s Open Meetings Act, because only three council members were present — Robert Strichik, John Chambers and Tommy Merrick. Four of Prattville’s seven city council members must be present to constitute a quorum.

Foster and the library board haven’t seen any revisions made since the draft he received by email on Aug. 15, sent by city attorney Andrew Odom to Foster, library board member Wayne Lambert and the official email of the mayor’s office. Lambert said he shared that draft with Library Board Chair Susan Poteat, but was not aware of any other board members having seen what he called a “rough, rough draft.”

The library board and library staff were not invited to the meeting Friday night, but Gillespie said he did offer for Lambert to review the updated draft.

According to Foster’s explanation of the original draft and Hayden’s explanation of the draft discussed at the Friday meeting, not too much has changed. APR asked Gillespie for a copy of the most updated draft, but he declined, citing that the draft contract is a “council work product.” He also emphasized to APR that resolutions can be “voted on, held or amended.”

Redefining the “young adult” section

Hayden said the draft contained language that would set the minimum age of the young adult fiction section, with a blank where the age would be. Hayden said the group was informed that a further updated version of the draft, which was not before them, had replaced that blank with the age of 18, meaning the young adult section would be designated for adults 18 and up.

“Where would the teenagers be expected to go to find their materials in the library,” Hayden said she asked the officials. “There seemed to be some actual confusion about that once I started asking specific questions about how this would be carried out by the library. There was some proposal of splitting the section. Nobody had thought that through and there was no representative of the library to help guide that discussion.”

Hayden said she assumed coming in that the line would be set at 16-plus, referencing Gillespie’s comments at the last board meeting that he thought children of that age are trusted to drive cars and therefore ought to be trusted with a book. Hayden described her role as “fighting for her life” to urge the officials to bring the minimum age down to 16, despite feeling that making the young adult section 16-plus is not a tenable solution.

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Poteat said if the contract requires the minimum age of the section to be 18-plus, “that’s no longer the young adult section.”

“That’s the same as the adult section; that defeats the purpose,” Poteat said. “We’ve been very careful to follow the guidelines of what a library should be. We’ve been diligently working the process for reconsideration of books; we’re not going to blanket take all of these books and dump them in this new section.”

Hayden’s description is a bit different than what Foster and Poteat received, who both said that the original draft broke the library into four sections: 0-12, 13-15, 16-18 and adult. 

Foster explained that the age categories were accompanied by a litany of what is considered inappropriate for each category. The 0-12 category was obviously strictest, and restricted everything from cursing to nudity: “A very cookie-cutter list of what might be considered dirty.”

On 13-15, Foster said two or three of those inappropriate content flags were removed. And 16-18, he said, had no such tags.

Having something like this honestly creates a pall of fear over everything we do.

Foster pointed out one catch-all that had been added on the lists of objectionable content that he said there seemed to be a lot of emphasis on in the meeting: “A very vague statement about prevailing community standards.” The language is very similar to the “Miller test” for obscenity that references “contemporary community standards” in one of three prongs for judges to decide whether a work, taken as a whole, should be classified as obscenity and thus exempt from First Amendment protections. 

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“That begs the same question that has been asked in all of this situation: Who draws that line?” Foster said. “Is that drawn by the board? Drawn by the staff? Drawn by the Prattville City Council or the county commission? Clean Up or Read Freely? Who draws that line?”

Foster said if Hayden’s description of the draft is correct, the contract impressively falls short of an already low bar.

“That such an initially undesirable contract managed to get worse is pretty astounding,” Foster said. “The fact they want to take a section that is written for and meant for the development of 12- to 18-year-olds and essentially bar them from that section— I truly don’t know how they’re justifying that if that’s what the contract is.”

Draft excludes two major Clean Up Prattville sticking points

In the long lists of what content would be considered objectionable, neither version of the draft referenced sexual orientation or “gender ideology.” These two themes are what kicked off the entire culture war over the library in Prattville.

Hayden credited officials for stopping short of that rallying cry from the individuals involved in Clean Up Prattville.

“(Gillespie said) someone had called him to complain about that, and (Gillespie) told them that he is not going to be singling out the LGBTQ community as that is a sure way to have a lawsuit,” Hayden said.

Foster said he also wasn’t surprised to see that content left off the list.

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“I think at the very least if they go after LGBTQ in particular they are going to get slammed for discrimination,” Foster said.

When the Prattville City Council first began hearing from individuals complaining about a lack of response from the library and library board, council president Lora Lee Boone told them they were “speaking to the wind” as the council was not going to get involved in oversight of the library outside of its duty to appoint officers to the board.

That such an initially undesirable contract managed to get worse is pretty astounding.

But despite the council and county commission now considering unprecedented action to meet some of the demands of the group, a mass email posted to Clean Up Alabama’s Facebook page shows that the group is still unsatisfied with the proposed contract, specifically pointing out gender and sexuality multiple times while continuing the group’s penchant for conflating LGBTQ content and sexual content. 

The bolding below was added by APR to highlight the group’s emphasis on gender and sexuality/sexual orientation.

“Sources indicate that Mayor Bill Gillespie and the City Council plan to ‘compromise’ with the radical LGBT lobby and continue allowing children access to books dealing with sex and gender ideology,” the unattributed email states. “Sources” is presumed to refer to Shirley, since he was invited and attended the meeting. 

And again, “Anything short of protecting children 18 and under from inappropriate material dealing with sex, sexuality, gender, and pornography is unacceptable.”

And again, “Instead of teaching kids reading, writing, and arithmetic, our government continues using taxpayer dollars to burden kids with discussions of sexuality, gender, and other concepts well beyond their years. 

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And again, “Discussions of sex and gender with children are simply not appropriate coming from anyone except a parent or guardian.”

Some content restricted to 18-plus for checkout

Another proposal apparently in the newer draft is the requirement for some content to have an age-verification process of some kind for checking out of certain materials.

Hayden said it was again unclear what plan there would be to implement such a policy, but said the gist is that books with certain content would require the patron to be 18 or older.

“I’m not really sure if the council has worked through how it would be implemented,” Hayden said. “I’m not sure if IDs would be checked or which books would gain that label. There’s a lot that has not been thought through adequately.”

Foster said his version of the draft did not include that language.

Clause provides for “at-will” funding of library

Not only does the contract for services tie the already proposed level funding of the library to the stipulations of the contract, Foster said his version included a clause that would allow the city and county to end funding at will and demand money back at a prorated rate. He said his understanding is that the clause remains in the current version of the contract.

“Whether we had already used that money, already spent that money or whatever, we may be expected to repay those funds when we are not a for-profit business, we are nonprofit,” Foster said. “Other monies go directly into library. We don’t keep profits, we don’t split profits. Our library staff, frankly, is underpaid for what any rate in the area is. It is likely one of the lowest-paid jobs in the city. Our employees would be paid more working fast food. The stipulation that funding could be pulled at any time for any reason is incredibly alarming for myself as well as, I think, for the board.

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“We already struggle at times, just because of our pay, to keep employees,” Foster said. “The reason they stay working here is because they love the library and believe in the mission of the library. Having something like this honestly creates a pall of fear over everything we do.”

Under the at-will funding stipulation, Foster said library staff would have to second-guess every program, every interaction with a patron for fear the library would be shut down.

“I’ve truly never heard of a scenario like this,” Foster said. “If the city or county, or both, decided to want to do this, there is a method of doing this that is the right way to do it. That way would be to dissolve the library as it exists now and reform it in any way that they want. They do have the right to do so. That is a part of the Alabama code that Alabama libraries are based on.

“The way they’re doing it now is not that process. It’s trying to change the terms without saying they’re changing the terms.”

Current course likely ends with the library defunded

While the council and commission appear to have set out to draft a contract to bring a compromise in the months-long debate over how age-appropriate content is decided, Foster, Poteat and Lambert all agreed the most likely result of the contract as they’ve seen and heard it is the defunding of the library.

“I truly don’t think—if the contract retains quite a few things that were in that original contract— I do not think the library board can in good conscience sign it,” Foster said. “It’s kind of an insult to the library board in a way that this document even is needed, and to me as well. (The library board is) an entity established solely for the purpose and responsibility, with the director’s assistance, of overseeing the library. This contract is the city and county saying that they can’t be trusted to do so, so this needs political oversight.

“I think if it’s forced on the board, there is a very good chance we may no longer have a board by the end of the month,” Foster said. “If the city and county want to run the library, they can run it.”

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Poteat has served seven years on the board, and said she checked with other members who have served much longer, and nothing like this has ever come before the board.

“We have already expressed the first form is not something we feel comfortable with,” Poteat said. “If they have revised it and it is worse, I would lean toward we’re still not going to sign it. The idea of the contract bothers me. The board has their duties based on the law that established public libraries.”

I think if it’s forced on the board, there is a very good chance we may no longer have a board by the end of the month.

Lambert made it clear, unless a substantive change is made to the rough draft he saw, he will refuse to sign it.

”I go by the guidelines of my profession,” Lambert said. “Andrew is a degreed librarian. He knows his stuff. I’m not degreed — that’s not my forte. We want it to be a public library. (The board members are) the most conservative law-abiding citizens there are. We have to put our personal beliefs aside and go off the law and the guidelines of what a public library is supposed to be. That’s the part I think so many are missing.”

If the city council authorizes Gillespie to sign the contract on Tuesday, it will likely be before the board at its Thursday, Sept. 7 meeting. That is the only scheduled meeting before the fiscal year ends on Sept. 31. If the council does not authorize the contract on Tuesday, it will take at least two weeks before the next opportunity to do so, after the library board has already met.

If the library board refuses to sign the contract Thursday and no other actions are taken by either side, the money will run out at the end of the month.

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“I’m fairly sure the doors will close on Oct. 1,” Foster said. “The library accounts may go a little bit over. At the end of the year of budgeting, we try to put forward enough to cover a few weeks of salary. But that may or may not be the case. The lights would have to be on, bills and other services—plumbing janitorial—would still have to be paid if we were open.”

Foster noted ironically that if the library does indeed shut down, it will close at the beginning of Banned Book Week, which highlights the long history of book challenges and censorship.

Clean Up Prattville continues campaign of accusing officials, library staff of “sexualizing children”

If the city and county thought this contract of services would show a good faith effort to the members of Clean Up Prattville that they were trying to address sexual content in the library, it doesn’t appear to have been taken that way.

In the aforementioned email, the group continues to blast officials by claiming that they are sexualizing children.

Once again, emphasis added by APR.

“With your help, we can put a stop to the sexualization of children in the Autauga-Prattville Public Library,” the email states.

And again: “If the Mayor and City Council vote to fund the library without requiring the library to stop giving children access to inappropriate books, they are just as guilty of sexualizing children as the people who put the books on the shelves.”

And again: “So please click here to contact Mayor Gillespie and the City Council and urge them to stop the library from sexualizing children! 

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And again: “The people pushing the sexualization of children are playing a long game. … Those who hate traditional American values are working tirelessly to subvert our culture by targeting children and will stop at nothing to accomplish their agenda — including exposing children to sexual content.”

In a release after Gillespie released the proposed 2023-2024 budget that includes level funding for the library, Clean Up Prattville executive director Hannah Rees said: “Any city councilor who votes for the mayor’s proposed budget before the library issues are addressed simply enables the library to continue sexualizing the children of our community.”

“If a politician fails to stop a public library from grooming children then votes to give that library taxpayer dollars, he or she is complicit and will be held accountable by the people of this state,” Rees continued.

Proposed contract puts library in legal conundrum

Up until Clean Up Prattville began, the Autauga-Prattville Public Library didn’t particularly seem to need its own independent legal counsel. Until February, library board members can’t recall a complaint ever even being lodged about a book.

But in May, Foster said the board realized it might need a lawyer and asked the city what its options were.

“The board started asking ‘Who is our representation?’ or ‘Do we need to find somebody,” Foster said. “They were told the city apparently provides that for the library.”

Gillespie clarified to APR Sunday morning that the city offered to allow the library representation by the city counsel, but as it became clear where things were going, Gillespie notified the library and board that that offer would soon expire.

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“Out of professional courtesy whenever this situation started, I did offer the city attorney to discuss this situation with Mr. Wayne and Ms. Poteat and they have taken that offer up many times,” Gillespie said. “When I did meet with Wayne and Andrew Foster, and Andrew Odom was there as well, I let them know the direction everything was going in. I felt like I was putting Andrew Odom in a position where he can’t serve two different entities at the same time. I let them know during that meeting that the offer to utilize (Odom) was coming to an end. I did not give them a date, but I’ve got to be fair to all involved. That involves the city attorney’s position.”

But now with the city expecting the library to enter a legally binding contract to secure funding, it’s not so clear-cut.

“I think at this point the library is just left to flounder and find our own (attorney) if it comes down to it,” Foster said. “ I think Andrew (Odom) has been fair in his listening to us and receiving everything, and in the advice he has given when other situations and scenarios have come up, he has been working to fulfill his obligations. But there is absolutely a split obligation and, I assume, a higher priority for the city than the library, although he is representation for both.”

I think at this point the library is just left to flounder.

Of course, the previous budget did not include funding for attorney fees, and with less than 30 days remaining in the fiscal year, the library is almost out of funds. Foster said he has been looking into resources for lawyers who may be able to represent the library pro bono.

APR called and left text messages for Prattville City Council president Lora Lee Boone, Prattville City Councilman John Chambers and Autauga County Commission Chair Jay Thompson and did not receive a response before publishing time. APR also sent a message to Clean Up Prattville executive director Hannah Rees and did not receive a response before publishing time.

Jacob Holmes is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can reach him at [email protected]

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