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Bill giving local governments power to boot library board members passes committee

A committee approved a bill that gives local governments the power to remove library board members.

Lettering on the outside of the Prattville Public Library against a brick wall.

A Senate committee gave a favorable report Wednesday to a bill by Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Josephine, that gives local governments the power to remove public library board members by majority vote.

Elliott said multiple mayors contacted him questioning whether local governments who are in charge of appointing the members had the authority to remove them.

“As a former local government guy, I was surprised that they didn’t, frankly,” Elliott said.

The current language does not grant any powers to local appointing authorities to remove library board members during the course of their terms, although it also doesn’t expressly prohibit those governing authorities from creating local procedures for the removal of members.

Library board members can be removed in at least some instances on the local level—in Ozark, a member can be removed if the other four members are unanimous in a vote to remove the individual. In Prattville, a board member can automatically be removed if they miss enough consecutive meetings.

Elliott tried to frame the bill at face value, but that didn’t stop his Democratic colleagues on the committee from dipping into the undercurrents 

“Maybe I’m just naturally suspicious,” said Sen. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham. “Senator, what I’m trying to find out from you is, if this is how we’ve been operating, what has happened? Now I know my colleagues on the right have been focused on libraries so much of late—and so I’m just trying to figure out what has happened as to why we have to have this bill filed?”

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“You and I’ve worked together for a few years, and I think you could agree that I play my cards face up, so I’ll answer your question just as directly as I can,” Elliott responded. “This bill came to me because of budget concerns with mayors.”

Elliott repeatedly referred to these alleged budget concerns that came from mayors and downplayed its relation to the discussion over whether certain content should be considered inappropriate for children and whether it should be moved within or removed from libraries. He described a situation in which the library board offers a contract to the executive director which the appropriating authority is then “on the hook” for, although boards work within the monies already appropriated from their appointing authorities.

Sen. Kirk Hatcher, D-Montgomery, called the bill “morality legislation at its worst.”

“If we have people who have not been properly vetted currently on the library boards, is there anything that can be done without some act of legislation, which I think is a slippery slope legislation,” Hatcher said. “I think it takes us into the space of book banning and I cannot be for that, I cannot imagine that we’re going to go back to something like that.”

Hatcher pointed to Elliott’s quote in Yellowhammer News that library boards have been “infiltrated” by people that don’t hold “Alabama values.” Elliott said he meant that board members don’t reflect the values of their local communities.

It wasn’t just Democrats that took issue with the bill. The committee ultimately voted 7-3 in favor of the legislation, including Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, crossing party lines to support the bill. But Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, announced his opposition to the bill before exiting the committee meeting early due to another engagement. Albritton said he had received numerous concerns about the bill, but did not elaborate before leaving the meeting.

The situation in Prattville

While Elliott tried to keep the conversation at face value and sidestep the issue of book challenges, Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, linked the bill to the debate that has been ongoing in Prattville over the past year.

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“The question in my mind is not of censorship or free speech or … I’m not trying to, or I don’t support banning books,” Chambliss said. “What I’m interested in is having an age-appropriate procedure process … We didn’t (have that) in our case, and the folks that were in our situation turned away from protecting children, protecting the most innocent from things that their mind is not ready to comprehend. It will be later, but not at that age. And in those instances our community was irate that they would not protect their children. We needed a different leadership.”

The Autauga-Prattville Public Library Board never finished it’s reconsideration process for many of the books challenged by citizens there, who later formed the statewide group Clean Up Alabama that has been at the forefront of pushing this issue statewide. The books it did review were mostly not sexually explicit, but instead had LGBTQ characters and the board decided those books were shelved appropriately in most cases. The more sexually explicit books are still being reviewed, although library staff has already moved 25 percent of the challenged books ahead of the formal review. 

Chambliss’ depiction of a community “irate” at the refusal to relocate these books is also misleading at best, as there has been equal if not greater pushback against relocating the books. In fact, at a Prattville City Council meeting that would have given much greater control over content to the council, about two-thirds of constituents appeared to be on the side of allowing the library board to continue with its process. The opposition in Prattville has since coalesced into Clean Up Alabama’s major statewide opposition, Read Freely Alabama.

The issue of removing library board members has become a moot point for Prattville after the Autauga County Commission ignored precedent and appointed a library board member sympathetic to Clean Up Alabama’s cause instead of waiting for a recommendation from sitting library board members. The move resulted in the four remaining members immediately resigning their posts.

Now, Clean Up Alabama believes it has the numbers advantage on the Autauga-Prattville library board with four county appointees, and a board agenda set for today appears to reference numerous changes to come.

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

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