A WA city council might give itself the power to ban library books

The Liberty Lake proposal would usurp the library board of trustees’ policy-making control, including decisions about which titles to stock.

A row of books on a library shelf.

Books that deal with LGBTQ+ issues are seen here at the Southwest Branch of the Seattle Public Library. Calls to ban books from public libraries have been increasing nationwide, including in Washington, where the number of titles challenged in the state increased from 10 in 2017 to 42 in 2021, according to the ALA. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

This story was originally published by RANGE Media.

The Liberty Lake City Council meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 14, was not about banning books, according to the supporters of a proposed policy that would, in part, allow the Liberty Lake City Council to ban books.

Liberty Lake Councilmember Phil Folyer introduced an ordinance at that meeting that would give the Council policy-making control over the city’s library, including which titles can appear on its shelves. Those decisions are currently made by the library’s board of trustees, an appointed body of library professionals who are trained to make decisions about what content best serves a given population.

The introduction of the ordinance will be one of Folyer’s final significant acts as a Councilmember before he is replaced by Linda Ball on January 1. 

A similar bill was passed in May 2023 but vetoed by Liberty Lake Mayor Cris Kaminskas. The original legislation would have prevented the council from initiating a proposal to ban books — requiring instead that book-ban proposals come from community members. The new ordinance allows the Council to directly initiate a ban, giving it even more power.

Opponents of the legislation say it is being reintroduced now because there is a small window of just over a month in which supporters of the proposal have the supermajority required for it to pass. 

Because of this timing, outgoing Councilmember Tom Sahlberg characterized the push to pass the ordinance before the new Council is sworn in as “gaming the system.” 

Councilmember Chris Cargill defended the ordinance as creating a more direct democratic structure. “Those who are closest to the voters are tasked with being responsible to the voters,” Cargill said at the meeting. “Unelected boards and commissions are not responsible to voters, and they don’t need to be responsible to voters.”

During that meeting, the controversy came to a head, with enough people filling the council chambers to oppose the policy, known as Ordinance 119-D, that city employees had to find extra chairs. Many who spoke during the open comment period said the move was intended to ban books; others objected to the Council taking advantage of the scheduling quirk that could briefly give it a large-enough majority to overturn any repeat mayoral veto between November 28 and January 1, when Linda Ball, a newly elected councilmember, takes office. 

“If it’s not about book banning, what is it about?” said community member Kottayam V. Natarajan Jr. 

The policy areas the library board currently oversees include providing free internet to visitors, keeping the library clean and safe, deciding who is eligible for a library card and, crucially, what books go on the shelves.

Though the ordinance does not mention book bans, it’s that last authority — known as the “Collection Development Policy” — that has raised the hackles of activists and Councilmembers concerned about book bans. The first ordinance that wanted to give policy-making power to the City Council contained language saying the Council could not initiate a book ban, which Councilmember Annie Kurtz said she lobbied to include. That language would have allowed the Council to get rid of books retroactively but not to propose a book ban. The new version does not include that language. 

The Council is on track to vote on the ordinance December 5.

Natarajan — who spoke as a private citizen, not in his capacity as a member of the Liberty Lake Water and Sewer Commission — was among many speakers who found it hard to believe the ordinance wasn’t about book banning. Why, they asked, did the Council seek to pass it now, taking advantage of the temporary dynamic in the Council that favors the ordinance? 

In prepared comments, Jackie Babin, a decade-long Liberty Lake resident, accused Folyer of being opportunistic in his last-ditch bid to rehash the ordinance.

“It appears to me that Mr. Folyer and others are certainly taking advantage of the timing of Council replacements in effect for just one month,” Babin said. “Mr. Folyer was voted out and yet he is allowed to still attempt to make policy that was unsuccessful before with a legitimate City Council.”

Legislative Groundhog Day

The debate felt like déjà vu. A council chamber packed with a large group of people mostly opposed to an ordinance that would allow the Council effective control of the library board — and therefore the contents of Liberty Lake’s libraries — had already happened this spring, resulting in Kaminskas’ spring veto. 

Even earlier, in 2022, a resident of Liberty Lake had tried to ban a queer book from the shelves of the Liberty Lake Municipal Library.

The book in question, Gender Queer, was shelved in the library’s adult section. It is an illustrated memoir that follows the story of author Maia Kobabe exploring — and struggling with — binary social conceptions of gender and coming to terms with themselves as a queer person. The book contains several explicit depictions of queer intimacy and is one of several titles at the forefront of the conservative culture-war zeitgeist. Gender Queer earned more challenges from conservative activists wanting to ban it than any other book in 2022.

After the library board denied resident Erin Zasada’s request to ban Gender Queer from Liberty Lake Municipal Library in 2022, she appealed to the City Council, which decided not to ban the book.

In subsequent months, the trustees developed a new policy that would give it the final authority over deciding which books belong in the library. This is the typical structure of post-WWII public libraries, which developed the Library Bill of Rights as a structure for how libraries should serve and be protected by their communities. The idea of the structure is to insulate libraries from political considerations. The library’s board of trustees is appointed by the city council and does not answer directly to voters, creating some cushion from the sometimes whiplash whims of public opinion.

“There’s always been a separation of libraries and politics, so that people of political power aren’t making decisions over what materials are in the library,” said Jandy Humble, director of the Liberty Lake Municipal Library. “There’s the Library Bill of Rights, which was set after World War II, when we saw book-burning and that sort of thing.”

But for some Council members who apparently wanted more control over library policymaking, this was a timely moment to seize it. On May 16, the Council voted 4-3 to cement its policy-making authority over the library.

But though the timing was opportune, it was not perfect. On May 22, Mayor Cris Kaminskas sent the legislation back with no signature, and the Council lacked the votes to overturn this veto.

The election of November 7 has given the councilmembers who wanted full control over library policy an opportunity to revisit this project. On November 28, Mike Kennedy, who has signaled he supports the ordinance, was sworn in, replacing his incumbent opponent, Tom Sahlberg, who voted against the original proposal. 

Kennedy told Spokane’s Spokesman-Review that he believes the library, as an extension of the city of Liberty Lake, should have its policies set by the elected representatives of that city rather than be insulated from voter opinion. 

“The library is funded by the city,” Kennedy said. “Because of that, the library comes under the rules and regulations of the city. Where does the buck stop? It stops at elected officials.”

Kennedy’s vote would give the pro-control wing of the Council a 5-2 majority, enough to override a mayoral veto. After November 28, Sahlberg’s departure left only Kurtz and Dunne against five Councilmembers — Kennedy, Wendy Van Orman, Chris Cargill, Jed Spencer and Folyer — who have expressed support for greater government control of library shelves.

“So then you’ve got the potential of that supermajority, which is what people are worried about,” Kurtz said.

That supermajority will go away January 1, when Folyer leaves office and Ball is sworn in.

A shifting council

Not all Councilmembers are on board with the ordinance. Kurtz said during the meeting that, if approved, the policy would give opponents of 2SLGBTQIA+ and Black history material in libraries a political tool to drive book bans.

“Book bans continue to happen across the country,” Kurtz said. “They need a vehicle to do that. And this ordinance, the way it’s written, provides that opportunity, even if that is not the intent.”

Ball, who will be sworn in January 1, and who spoke at previous meetings debating the original ordinance, told RANGE the repeat ordinance seemed “like a last-minute grasp at power, and it’s wrong.” 

She spoke again Tuesday night about the renewed effort, asking the Council why it is singling out the library for control. 

“I believe you’re afraid of people who think differently than you,” she said. “If this isn’t about book banning, then why does the majority not demand control of the planning commissions … or any of the other boards and commissions within this city?”

In an email to RANGE Tuesday, Councilmember Sahlberg also criticized the introduction of the new ordinance.

“The timing of this appears to be well-planned, opportunistic and gaming the system by using my departure and [Kennedy’s] appointment to be sure there is a super-majority that is ‘veto-proof’ before Phil [Folyer]’s replacement would restore the 4-3 margin, allowing for the Mayor to decide whether or not to veto,” Sahlberg wrote.

Potential legal challenges

In April, Roxanna Gomez and Kendrick Washington of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington sent a letter to the City Council saying they were “monitoring the situation” and would “decide how to proceed” after the April 18 Council meeting.

“We hope this email conveys the serious threats book banning poses to your community’s constitutional rights,” Gomez and Washington wrote to the council.

The letter asserted that by trying to exert full control over the library board, the council was “in direct violation of RCW 27.12.210, which grants authority to library trustees, like Liberty Lake Municipal Library’s Board of Trustees, to ‘Adopt such bylaws, rules, and regulations for their own guidance and for the government of the library as they deem expedient.’”

The letter also cited the city’s 2021 proclamation on equity, which says Liberty Lake must “ensure that City services are responsive to race, color, religion, age, sex, national origin, disability status, genetics, protected veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or any other characteristic protected by federal, state or local laws.” 

Gomez and Washington sent the letter after they were “contacted by concerned Liberty Lake community members and parents” who opposed the ordinance.

In a statement to RANGE, Washington said the ACLU will continue to watch what’s happening in Liberty Lake. 

“The residents of Liberty Lake deserve access to the diversity of ideas, information, and opinions that only a free and independent library can provide,” he wrote. “Such access is a critical safeguard to democracy. We are monitoring the proposal of an ordinance to transfer power over library policies from the Board of Trustees to the Mayor and City Council and will be closely watching how those policies, if passed, will impact residents’ access to books, information, and ideas.”

Co-parenting with the government

RANGE reached out before the November meeting to every City Council member, but none who supported either iteration of the ordinance returned phone calls or emails. At the Council meeting, a RANGE reporter asked Folyer for comment, but he declined. By introducing the ordinance now, he said during the meeting, he was simply performing his duty as a public servant.

“Some have openly questioned the timing of Ordinance 119-D and how it relates to the election results, specifically my seat,” Folyer said during the meeting. “I swore an oath and have a duty to represent this city in all matters related to the Council’s responsibilities for four years, not three years and ten and a half months. I believe I have earned the right to continue representing the city until December 31st, and that’s exactly what I intend to do.”

If the Council passes the ordinance and Kaminskas repeats her veto, the council will have till January 1 to override the rejection. It’s unclear whether Mike Kennedy, who was sworn in November 28, would vote to override the mayor’s veto, but he has told local news organizations he believes the Council should have more control over the library board.

Councilmember Kurtz worried public opinion was being disregarded by the council.

“One of my biggest concerns is that, over the course of that seven-month period of time, there was an incredible amount of opposition from the community,” Kurtz told RANGE. “We had all the people there saying, ‘Please don’t do this.’”

Sahlberg echoed Kurtz’s concerns, saying Council control does not necessarily equal stronger democracy.

“Our organizational chart lists the citizens as the top tier, not the [City Council],” Sahlberg wrote.

This story was originally published by RANGE Media on November 22, 2023. Crosscut has edited it, with permission, to reflect developments after that date.

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About the Authors & Contributors

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Aaron Hedge

Aaron Hedge, originally from Colorado, earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Eastern Washington University in June 2023. His writing explores environmental issues and the relationship between humans and animals. He grew up in a Christian home and wants to write more about end times theology.

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Erin Sellers

Erin moved to town from Idaho to attend Gonzaga University, fell in love with Spokane and hasn’t left yet. They are a queer storyteller, and when they’re not pounding Red Bulls (not sponsored) and typing frantically, you can find her on and off stage at a few of the theatres in town. She is passionate about increasing accessibility to public meetings, telling stories from underrepresented communities and pitching funny merch ideas.