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Commissioners urge library transparency

St. Mary's Library officials address county commissioners

St. Mary’s Library System director Michael Blackwell, back center, briefs the commissioners on library user statistics and capital projects during a meeting Tuesday morning. He sits with library board of trustees vice president Jim Hanley, center right, and trustee president Carolyn Guy.

This story has been updated.

The St. Mary’s commissioners voted to remove $2,439.48 from the St. Mary’s County Library budget to reimburse the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office for security services provided during a privately sponsored event last month that resulted in the arrest of one protester.

The county commissioners criticized existing library policy during a meeting with library officials Tuesday morning, after residents during a public forum last week railed against a drag queen story hour event, sponsored last month by nonprofits Southern Maryland Secular Humanists, or SMASH, and the LGBTQ-oriented PFLAG of Leonardtown.

The library does not earmark funding for security, Carolyn Guy, library board of trustees president, said after the meeting.

Commissioner John O’Connor (R) proposed moving the funding to pay for costs associated with the security and overtime expenses, a figure he said was provided to him by the sheriff’s office. Commissioners Todd Morgan (R) and Eric Colvin (R) also voted in favor, and Commissioner Mike Hewitt (R) voted against it.

"I don't want to see any of our funding being cut, but unfortunately we have a majority of our board that's voted yes," Commissioner President Randy Guy (R) said. Randy Guy did not appear to vote one way or the other. Government records were updated later to reflect Randy Guy voted in favor of the reallocation.

The vote came after some terse exchanges between county and library officials. Colvin, reading from a “very troubling” blog post on the American Library Association website confirmed to have been written by a local librarian in 2017, told library Director Michael Blackwell, Carolyn Guy and trustee vice president Jim Hanley that “there’s some public trust that’s been lost in the library. … Justifiably, in my mind.”

The ALA blog post details ways to “‘sneak’ inclusive messages into your current programs.” The author notes “it can be disheartening to feel you’re not supported by your library, and by extension the community that library serves.”

Blackwell said the employee who wrote the post is “an extremely trusted employee” who’s done “many story times. We’ve never had a complaint.” He added, “She’s no longer a member of this group. … She spoke on her own time, it doesn’t represent the library.”

“She stated she snuck things into library programming,” O’Connor said.

Earlier, Hewitt told library officials, “Your board remains invisible when these conversations come up. … Look at your policies and do things that allow you to avoid people being arrested in our libraries. Do things that allow you to look at what content’s being put out there.

“We funded you over $3 million last year,” he said, more than their state-mandated required contribution. “People are asking us to look at that.”

Last year the commissioners appropriated $2.78 million for the library, according to the 2019 budget.

PFLAG and SMASH “did follow library policies, which are pretty standardized throughout the country,” Carolyn Guy said. “There’s no way we could” have canceled the event without violating their own regulations, she said.

She added, “We didn’t know about it, we didn’t approve it, we didn’t condone it. It’s a private use in the library. First Amendment rights are what we must abide by. … None of our policies have to do with content unless it’s illegal or unsafe.”

Library policy states the meetings rooms are open for “individuals, organizations and businesses who agree to observe the rules and whose activities will not adversely affect the library operations.”

The story time "does not do anything to impede library operations," Blackwell said during the meeting. "It's the outside reaction to it that does."

Blackwell said he feels “like I’m a football in a game between opposing teams who really don’t like each other,” but “we believe we can’t exclude people from our meeting rooms.”

“If you continue to be used as a football, maybe you should take a look at no more public meeting use” for non-library sponsored events, Colvin said.

Blackwell said he has personally asked the groups not to reserve meeting space in the library for future, potentially controversial events.

“I really wish they’d say ‘all right, we won’ … and start using private spaces and not the library,” he said.

He added that out of the 4,600 uses of public library meeting spaces this past year, “It seems like a little bit of an overreaction to shut down all events in the library program.”

“We’re concerned tremendously about your lack of transparency,” Morgan said, adding, “The board here has to answer the public. To you guys, there’s no public accountability.”

Blackwell said earlier that he had fielded numerous international calls from protesters after his contact information was publicly posted by event opponents online.

Morgan and Colvin suggested the board abide by the county’s open meetings policy by holding televised meetings and uploading files to BoardDocs, a public database used by county government.

The library complies with the Maryland open meetings act, Carolyn Guy said. The library board holds monthly meetings. Blackwell said citizens are welcome to attend the meetings, but must notify board members in advance if they wish to address them publicly. Library meeting agendas, minutes and schedules is posted publicly on the library's website.

“We will gladly work with you, we will televise our meetings,” Blackwell said.

“We are meeting with [local] pastors [in] mid-August to talk about these issues,” Hanley said. “We’re not just sitting on our laurels and not taking action.”

"It's unfortunate that you've taken money away from the library for something that we couldn't stop, and I feel is a retrospective action," Blackwell said. 

“If you’re gonna have controversial programming, you’re gonna have to reimburse the sheriff’s office,” O’Connor said. “If you’re gonna have policy in place that allows that to happen, you need to be responsible for the First Amendment that they’re practicing.”

Twitter: @TaylorEntNews

Twitter: @TaylorEntNews