MO Republican targets local library boards’ power after Cass County book dispute

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A Missouri Republican is targeting county library boards’ ability to levy taxes, only a week after the House cut all state aid for libraries.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Rick Brattin, a Harrisonville Republican, would allow county commissions to reverse a county library board of trustees’ decision to hold an election on a proposed tax increase.

It would also allow the county commission to remove members of the library board for “conduct prejudicial to the good order and effective operation of the library, or for other good cause.”

The hearing came after the House approved a budget last week that cut all $4.5 million in state aid meant for libraries in retaliation for two library groups filing a lawsuit that challenges a state law that bans certain materials in school libraries.

Brattin said the motivation for the bill is specifically to address issues within the Cass County Public Library Board of Trustees and establish more accountability for the appointed board.

Ryan Johnson, a Cass County commissioner, was the only person to testify at the hearing. Johnson cited two issues he had with the library board, one being a 2021 incident when the commission asked the library to move a controversial book out of the children’s section, but the library board voted to keep the book where it was.

The book, titled “It’s Perfectly Normal” by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley, is meant for kids aged 10 and older. It is about sexual and emotional health, relationships, puberty and sexual orientation.

Dan Brower, the director of the Cass County Public Library, said the library extensively vetted and reconsidered the book, but found it should remain in the juvenile section, which has books for kids aged 7 to 12.

“It’s not that the library is protecting the book, the library’s protecting the readers because libraries have always stood for the First Amendment and people’s freedom to read,” Brower said.

Brattin attacked the decision, saying “it’s not suppression of anything or banning, which is what always seems to be the narrative.” Instead, he argued it was about age-appropriate placement.

“Everybody has to be good players and good actors, especially when we have libraries that are putting obscene content in children’s section and want to fight back against moving them just to a different section,” Brattin said.

Another issue was a voter-approved tax levy that allotted more property tax revenue to the library than to the roads and bridges department.

“If you look at state statute, it’s true right now there’s no review process, no vetting whatsoever,” Johnson said. “The appointed board can simply put a tax increase on the ballot at any time that they care to. And the commission has no say whatsoever even though it is an appointed board.”

Sen. Barbara Washington, a Kansas City Democrat, pointed out that even if it was not reviewed, the tax levy was approved by voters.

Brower said the bill would allow one political subdivision to override the authority of another political subdivision. He said library boards should not be intimidated to make decisions that the county commission doesn’t agree with.

“Then perhaps the county commission can say, ’Well,I didn’t like that decision. You three are off.’ And they could say that’s for good cause,” Brower said. “How do they define for good cause?”

This bill in combination with the House slashing state aid in the budget is indicative of a nationwide issue of libraries being targeted, Brower said.

Brower said the library could try to ask voters for a tax increase but if the county rejects their attempt and they don’t have enough funds to keep the library going, they have no more options.

“It really takes away our locally governed power as a library district,” Brower said.

Cody Croan, the legislative committee chair for the Missouri Library Association, , said the point of library boards being appointed instead of elected positions is to make the process less political. Croan’s organization is one of the library groups involved in the lawsuit challenging the law banning certain material in school libraries.

“It absolutely enables retaliation against the library. And that is exactly a response to people wanting to control what’s going on the library shelves without referring to the community at large,” Croan said of the proposed legislation.

Regina Greer Cooper, the executive director of the Springfield-Greene County Library District, said the bill would not apply to the library because it is a city and county library, not just a county one. However, she said if the bill passes, she would be worried how the laws may change in the future.

“When did libraries become public enemy number one?” Cooper said. “Libraries do great things and they provide wonderful services for anybody that lives in their jurisdiction for free.