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Autauga, Prattville citizens speak out about library at government meetings

Citizens on both sides of the debate spoke out Tuesday at meetings of the Autauga County Commission.

The entrance to the Autauga County Administrative Building. STOCK
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It’s been a volatile week for the Autauga-Prattville Public Library and citizens on both sides of the debate spoke out Tuesday at meetings of the Autauga County Commission.

The highly emotional pair of public comment sessions Tuesday come after a major escalation in the yearlong battle over content for minors in the library.

Recapping the events that led to Tuesday nights comments

On Thursday, the relatively fresh board met in a special meeting to terminate Library Director Andrew Foster—why they fired Foster is still unclear as there have been conflicting reports from chairman Ray Boles.

Regardless, Foster’s termination pushed several library staff members over the edge on Thursday, as they closed the library in protest and refused to work unless Foster was reinstated. Boles “terminated” the four employees instead, although it is unclear whether any termination letters have been sent at this point.

Then on Saturday, the board hired library associate Tammy Bear as interim director in an apparent violation of the Open Meetings Act after failing to give 24-hour notice of the meeting. Attorney Laura Clark told APR that the meeting was actually an “emergency meeting” that only required one-hour notice but nothing about the notice mentioned an emergency, and an audio recording of Boles discussing posting the meeting mentions no emergency, nor does his tone indicate any emergency.

And then on Monday, the library canceled all upcoming programs and dropped the library to 42 hours a week, which would have disqualified it from state aid. After online backlash, the board was able to hold an Easter egg hunt Tuesday morning, as well as a story time program after bringing in volunteers. The library has also announced it will be open 45 hours this week to ensure it continues to receive state aid.

Legal options for the city

Before public comments began, the council called on attorney Andrew Odem to share what options were available to them regarding the library board.

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Odem said the council only really has two roles: appointing board members and appropriating funds. Outside of that, the board has autonomy. 

Although a bill is currently being considered in the Alabama Legislature to allow for the termination of board members by a supermajority of their appointing authorities for cause, there is currently no mechanism in state law for the removal of board members. However, there is no known law preventing a council or county commission from creating such a mechanism at the local level.

Some residents also urged the council to “get creative” with legal options to rectify the perceived troubled with the library board.

Resident Katherine Owens suggested to the council to consider whether they could divest from the current joint library setup and establish its own city library.

“Is there anything that can be done to change from a county library to city library?” Owens asked. “It being a county library seems to be the main issue. We only ever had city libraries in other places I’ve lived.”

Alabama Public Library Service Director Nancy Pack has told APR that it is indeed possible to split a joint library and reestablish as a city library. The city council would simply need to vote to dissolve it’s standing joint resolution with the county to end the city’s partnership.

Of course, that wouldn’t come without difficulties as the two government bodies would need to consider how certain materials are divided out depending on if or how the county wanted to also establish its own library service.

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No other commenters suggested a split outright, but Read Freely Autauga leader Christina Gardner suggested for the council to think creatively.

Public comments

There was plenty of criticism and support to go around between the two comment sessions at the commission and council meetings.

Angie Hayden, a founding member of Read Freely Alabama, told the Autauga County Commission that she had been predicting the current outcome for months.

“At the time, y’all might have thought I was being a little alarmist, but here we are,” Hayden said. “I stopped by the library today tot think about what I wanted to say and I watched the few remaining library staff having to work alongside people who have been calling them groomers for a year now. I expect more of them to be leaving soon.”

Hayden criticized the library board for not knowing how many hours the library needed to stay open to receive state aid, and for not knowing the director qualifications required for the state to continue receiving state aid. Hayden and other critics of the board also pointed to the consequence of the firings with the cancellation of events—although the library has since used volunteers to hold the event.

“It left our community shocked at how this could have happened,” Hayden said. “I could have told them exactly how and exactly why. Enough is enough; this is several steps beyond what we ever should have tolerated, and in my opinion, this is your mess. You made it, and now you are responsible for it.”

Critics have said the county commission stacked the board with members of Clean Up Alabama, and it is true that the county appointees appointed each other as officers. It was also the four county appointees and city appointee Gloria Kuykendall that approved new policies restricting content for minors 17 and under. But the most controversial action to date, the firing of Foster, was evenly split between county appointees (Chair Ray Boles and Vice Chair Rachel Daniels) and city appointees (Kuykendall and Quincy Minor). That group of four also participated in the likely unlawful meeting held to name an interim director.

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Supporters of the board, including Eagle Forum’s Lori Herring, said there have been many lies told about the library board.

“I’m here to speak the truth,” Herring said. “That seems to be hard to find in the last few days. There are so many lies that are being told that I think the truth needs to be spoken … repeating lies over and over does not make them the truth.”

Herring said one of those lies is the cancellation of programs, noting that the Easter egg hunt and story time were held Tuesday “with huge turnout, by the way.”

“It’s a testimony to people who really care about our community to step up and be part of the solution and not part of the problem,” Herring said. 

The majority of volunteers at the library have been members or associates of Clean Up Alabama, which Hayden referred to in her comment as Clean Up Alabama emails have sometimes referred to librarians as groomers and claimed that they were distributing pornography to children.

Amber Frey, another founder of Read Freely, said she had actually been turned down as a volunteer under the assertion that the library had enough volunteers at the time. 

District 2 Councilman Marcus Jackson asked Herring to answer how the library is handling volunteers, but since Herring is not employed by the library, she directed his question to the new interim director.

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Autauga GOP leader Bill Harris distributed to councilmembers the local party’s resolution opposing “inappropriate content” in minor sections of libraries, and told them “protecting children is your highest duty.”

He also told the county commission that the “library is not banning books, it is just moving books that are inappropriate.”

That is simply not true. The new library policies approved by this board on Feb. 8 specifically state that “For the avoidance of doubt, the library shall not purchase or otherwise acquire any material advertised for consumers ages 17 and under which contain content including, but not limited to, obscenity, sexual conduct, sexual intercourse, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender discordance.”

That is, by definition, a ban on books coming into the library if they contain any of the prohibited content and are advertised for young adults or children. While Boles and some others have said the board does not want to remove any books, and wants the prohibited books available in the adult section for parents to still have the choice to expose their children to that content, this policy flatly forbids any future purchase of such books—based on who they are advertised for, not what section they would wind up in.

Further, the policies add that books that do not align with the selection criteria are “candidates for weeding,” meaning the library director must consider those same books to be weeded—not based on where they are in the library, but who they are advertised to.

Audrey Strong, a leader of Clean Up Alabama, said she was grateful for “a library board that safeguards children’s innocence.” 

“It is truly commendable that this board creates a safe and nurturing environment for children without being exposed to inappropriate content through thoughtful and crucial action and the courage to do what’s right in a world that lacks discernment,” Strong said.

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Strangely, Strong and other members of Clean Up Alabama did not appear concerned about comments made by Boles in recent days that he will not move LGBTQ content out of the children’s and young adult sections unless they include sexual content, saying that he does not consider anything kissing and under to be sexual content.

When the Prattville City Council attempted to restrict sexual content in minor-intended areas, Clean Up Alabama called it a “half measure” and that Mayor Bill Gillespie and the City Council plan to cave to the pressure from the radical LGBT lobby and continue allowing children access to books dealing with sex and gender ideology.”

But despite Boles saying LGBTQ content belongs in those sections for minors, no members of Clean Up Alabama criticized him for it.

Jackson asked Strong to comment about books like The Hate U Give and Concrete Rose, by Black authors about Black experiences, being on the group’s list of targeted books.

He referenced a wide-ranging article from’s Williesha Morris giving a detailed accounting of the past year in library challenges.

“Is it really about kids, or is it about targeting a certain group of people?” Jackson asked Strong.

Strong told Jackson she didn’t believe the article was correct about that, and told Jackson that “you know me and my husband” and that they would not support banning racial books.

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I don’t believe it’s true at all; I’ve never heard of that article,” Strong said. “But be mindful of where you’re getting your information from and pray for discernment.”

Fellow Clean Up board member Chuk Shirley came before the council later to clarify that he had put books on the website and used BookLooks, a website founded by a founder of Moms for Liberty, to find books that may be questionable, and said BookLooks may have warned about things that Clean Up did not take issue with.

A cursory review of the list supports Shirley’s claim that the notes on each book come from BookLooks.

However, Clean Up Alabama executive director Hannah Rees told APR in a May 30, 2023 article that Critical Race Theory was not the group’s current focus, but “something we’re looking at.”

The council meeting public comments began to get heated as resident and veteran Ken Barnett began to scream about same-sex intercourse being wicked.

“Any act of sex between anybody outside of a man and woman in holy matrimony is wicked and it shouldn’t be given to our children and it’s time we stood up and said so and every preacher in this town should be in here,’ Barnett said, to loud applause from many in the crowd in support of the board. “If you can’t fire somebody then you can’t appoint them, and if you can appoint them, you can fire them … This country’s getting to a place where we need to raise our voice. I belong to the Judeo-Christian Biblical value community, the largest community in America. You want to talk about a community? Talk about that one. Talk about that persecuted community! They’re killing them like flies! It’s time you all defended them, it’s time you defended these kids, it’s time you defended these (unintelligible) and it’s time you defended the Bible.”

It is unclear who Barnett was saying was killing Judeo-Christian Americans like flies, but any assertion of a mass genocide of Judeo-Christians in America is beyond all reason.

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Barnett came back and sat next to Boles who was smiling and seemed to approve. Boles had asked church leaders to show up and support the board.

Kristen Hayden, a gay citizen, immediately followed Barnett and after asking the council to please share their personal opinions on the situation, told Barnett to “get f***ed.” Both Hayden and Barnett were out of line with the decorum asked for by Council President Lora Lee Boone, but council appeared to give some leeway given the high emotions involved on both sides.

However, after resident Jonathan Allen referred to Barnett as “the shouting octogenarian,” more members of Barnett’s family were prompted to make public comments including his wife Georgia Barnett.

Georgia Barnett said that she was under the assumption that “our nation” was founded under God. 

“In God’s book it says marriage between a man and a woman,” Barnett said. “This is why (God) destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.”

Georgia Barnett then implied criticism of the councilmen for allowing a woman, Boone, to run the council.

“It’s about time the men stood up; especially the men who let a woman run things all the time,” she said.

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In response to Ken Barnett, Jonathan Allen said nobody can claim that veterans just fought for Judeo-Christian values.

“You also have muslims, jews, any myriad of religions—you can’t just go with that,” Allen said.

Another veteran whose name APR could not hear, also combatted Barnett’s speech on veterans fighting for a religious value system.

He said his grandfather went overseas in the 1940s to fight fascism, his father went to Korea to fight totalitarianism and he himself went to the Middle East to fight religious totalitarianism.

“I do not want to see that take place in our communities,” he said. “We have freedom of choice, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech. Everybody should have representation.”

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

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