By Kim Lewicki & Brittney Lofthouse
The Fontana Regional Library System (FRLS) bi-monthly meeting held at the Hudson Library in Highlands Tuesday, was commandeered by attendees from Franklin and Highlands who were there to speak against the library’s policies regarding books they consider hyper-sexual – specifically, those about homosexuality and transgender persons.
When they learned that public comment would not be allowed that day or in the future at the bi-monthly library system meetings, attendees became outraged – yelling their concerns at the board members.
Board members tried to explain over the discourse, that due to past disruptive behavior at their meetings by attendees who deemed certain offerings at the libraries inappropriate, the board has been unable to conduct its business. As such, their counsel advised them to no longer have a public comment period at meetings.
The board also cited NC GS 143-318.1 – Open Meetings Law, that states that open public meetings can include public comment, but it is not required.
Furthermore, the library system’s counsel has said that since allowing public comment isn’t in the system’s by-laws, by allowing it, the system isn’t in compliance with its own by-laws.
The reaction was explosive and loud.
“They have never done this before, this is intentional to censor us;” “Your policies have been crafted to intentionally censor us;” “I’m a school teacher, are you telling me I can’t express my opinion?; “This is a public forum and we have rights;” “If you love children you will let us speak;” “You have been advised by MC Commissioners to stop sexualizing children. And you have ignored the suggestion from County Commissioners;” “This is our library not yours. Our tax dollars pay for this library, why can’t we speak?;” “How dare you not let us speak. This is America!;” “You continue to ignore us. That’s why we keep showing up. This would be all over if you would just show a little common sense in your policies instead of continuing to censor us and continuing to try to promote your agenda from the American Library Association instead of Western NC.”
The discourse continued for more than 15 minutes at which point attendees were invited to stay and listen to the meeting, which had been called to order but was halted – or leave.
“The meeting has been called to order. If you can’t be quiet, we will have to ask you to leave the room,” said the president of the board. “We are not going to be able to conduct the business we have today – the budget, the different grants we are getting, the update on the library buildings, the update on the Nantahala library building …”
“We don’t care about that,” yelled one attendee.
Macon County Commissioner Danny Antoine also attended the meeting and when he learned that public comment would no longer be allowed at Fontana Library System board meetings, he said the MC Commission would get involved.
“If they are not allowing public speaking from this point on, we will take action on that,” said Antoine.
He invited everyone in the room to go down the mountain to the MC Commission meeting scheduled for that night at 6 p.m.
Many of the same attendees at the meeting in Highlands, spoke before the Board of Commissioners Tuesday night regarding the Macon County Public Library, with resident Jim Gaston specifically requesting Macon County not to renew its contract with the FRLS.
Gaston suggested that if Macon County were to pull out of the library system, they would have access to resources through the North Carolina Cardinal System, the statewide resource sharing system.
However, if Macon County were to pull out of the FRLS, the county would retain the library buildings, but all books, computers, and other resources within the libraries would remain the property of the library system and would not stay in Macon County.
Gaston also said that the county should consider pulling out of the library system to ensure that Macon County funds stay in Macon County.
However, since the current libraries are part of a three-county regional system of Macon, Jackson, and Swain counties, all three counties provide funding for the library system, which operates as a system – while also having individual budgets for each library.
The Macon County Public Library, as well as the Nantahala Library and the Hudson Library in Highlands, operates under a regional agreement with the Board of County Commissioners from Jackson, Macon, and Swain Counties for the nonprofit organization referred to the FRLS to provide public library services.
The last agreement, signed in 2013, states: “the Boards of County Commissioners of Jackson, Macon, and Swain Counties recognize that collaboration provides the most effective and efficient means to provide public library service to the residents of said counties by unifying the administration of the participating libraries, providing professional library specialists, cooperating in the selection of books and other materials, and crossing county lines for the benefit of all; this collaboration provides opportunities for service and resource allocations otherwise beyond the financial a n d service capacities of the individual county governments and libraries.”
The contract defines the relationship between the participating counties and the library system stating that all real property such as buildings, grounds, and other facilities of each library shall be acquired and owned by the respective counties while all other property such as library materials, technology, furnishings, and books, are owned by FRLS, with an exception for the Hudson Library in Highlands, which calls for joint ownership of materials within the library.
Gaston also said he wouldn’t want Macon County residents to have to pay to build a new library in Swain County.
While Gaston presented that example during public comment period Tuesday night, the regional agreement specifically states that individual counties are responsible for their own buildings – and the regional system only shares resources such as books and personnel.
For instance, Macon County is in the middle of building a new library for the Nantahala Community and those funds are specifically from Macon County, not the regional system.
Antoine, who serves as the liaison to the library addressed those in attendance Tuesday night to say that he is “100% on board” with pulling out of the FRLS, however, he acknowledged that it will be a difficult, lengthy process.
Antoine said his basis for wanting to move forward with pulling out of the regional system is due to concerns over the types of books in the library’s catalog that he personally deems inappropriate.
He specifically referenced a book mentioned during public comment period that is available in the Macon County Public Library’s teen’s section, which is identified as being for teens 14 to 18 years old, Antoine said teens shouldn’t have access to those materials.
Antoine accused the library system of having an “agenda” that involves the sexualization of children.
“I am working really hard on this, especially for the kids because it is disgraceful that you would have pornographic books with kids and you have people defending a position saying that that is ok for a child to read,” said Antoine. “Just understand my heart, and I know these gentlemen [other commissioners] are definitely on board with the fact that these books are completely unacceptable to kids and the fact that the Fontana Regional System won’t work with us, even in terms of separating them to make it an adult section, so kids can’t access it… that tells me you have an agenda. It is not even about these books, it is more about an agenda and that they are trying to hyper-sexualize kids, that is a perverted situation.”
Since all of this was conducted during the public comment period of the MC Board of Commissioner meeting Tuesday night, no action was taken.
Antoine said this was a complex issue and will take time to work out.
Pictured at the top of the article is a packed house at the FRLS bio-monthly meeting on Tuesday.