Elephant in the room?
The library censorship controversy that put Hood County in a national spotlight almost four years ago resurfaced this week.
It had never really gone away.
It remains to be seen whether the action taken this week by a mostly new Commissioners Court simply levels the playing field for those seeking to serve on the Library Advisory Board (LAB) or is the first shot aimed at the library and some of its anti-censorship advocates.
Members of the Library Advisory Board showed up for this week’s Commissioners Court meeting, wary about an agenda item proposed by Precinct 4 Commissioner Dave Eagle, who was seated on the court in January.
LAB members are fearful that Eagle will seak to weaken the library and that one of his goals is to ultimately end its membership with the American Library Association.
The membership provides various services and databases, as well as standards for accreditation. Hood County’s library is accredited, and over the years county officials have been diligent about maintaining its accreditation.
Eagle’s agenda item was a suggestion that the court create a “generic” application for those applying “to all boards and commissions under commissioners’ control.” There are just a few, and the LAB is one of them.
Suspicious that Eagle was moving to undermine the board’s efficacy, two of its members who spoke at the podium beseeched the court to not allow “partisan politics” to be injected into the board’s work.
“Let’s face it, the elephant in the room here is that there are some who are displeased that they failed to censor books in 2015,” Felicia Peters said.
Eagle is the former vice president of the Hood County Tea Party. In 2015, he was among those who demanded that children’s books that promote tolerance toward the LGBT community be moved or removed from the shelves of the Hood County Library.
He also spoke out against the ALA, stating that it is heavily funded by “anti-American leftist” George Soros, and that its Bill of Rights – which is included in most libraries’ policies and is also followed by most branches of the U.S. military – “has no place” in Hood County’s library.
Eagle was elected to the Commissioners Court last November.
On Tuesday, he said that his proposal for a generic application originated from his discovery that the county does not have a proper application process. He said that he realized it due to his focus on the county’s two seats on the Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District board.
Eagle does have issues, though, with the LAB, and he made them clear. People have clamored to be on that board ever since the censorship controversy.
The discussion at the Commissioners Court meeting that led to a unanimous vote to change the status quo of the application process lasted more than an hour and revived some of the events from 2015.
In July of that year, a standing-room-only crowd of people on both sides of the censorship issue packed a Commissioners Court meeting that lasted more than three hours.
Camera crews from Metroplex media outlets were there as were representatives of the ACLU. Reporters from media outlets such as the Texas Observer live-tweeted.
It was already an exceptionally hot summer, with the county having made national headlines because of the county clerk’s refusal to issue same-sex marriage licenses.
Since Eagle’s election there have been predictions by some that he would target the library in an effort to reverse the previous Commissioners Court’s decision to leave the books alone.
Acting on the advice of then-County Attorney Lori Kaspar as well as outside counsel, the court had refused to rescind the decision of the LAB and then-Library Director Courtney Kincaid not to remove the books.
Kincaid did move “This Day in June,” which explains the annual Gay Pride parade, to the adult section because it contains a teaching guide.
However, “My Princess Boy” stayed – and so did the anger that some say has festered ever since.
Eagle insisted that his suggestion for a generic application had “nothing to do with doing away with the LAB.”
He said that his problems with that board had to do with the fairness and openness of its selection process.
That method was adopted by the previous court.
After the censorship hubbub, the Commissioners Court attempted to appease the Tea Party and others opposed to the children’s books by expanding the number of seats on the LAB and working with that board to create a blind application process.
The system has involved Library Director Karen Rasco (who replaced Kincaid) accepting applications, removing the top sheet that contains the person’s name, and then passing the applications to the LAB.
This presumably allowed for a selection process that was bias-free and based on relevant skill sets rather than political leanings.
At Tuesday’s meeting, though, Eagle took issue with the fact that an LAB committee discusses the applications in closed-session out of public view. He also challenged the claim that it is a fair selection process.
“Who do you think you’re fooling?” he asked.
Eagle also noted that the Local Government Code gives the Commissioners Court the responsibility for choosing members for boards and commissions.
Under the previous Commissioners Court, commissioners did determine the final selections but relied heavily on the LAB’s recommendations.
As an added degree of fairness, however, the board supplied the court with additional applications beyond the board’s own preferences.
For instance, if three seats needed to be filled, the LAB would select three candidates but would present those applications along with two others to the court for a final decision.
Eagle wanted to change that process. County Judge Ron Massingill and Precinct 3 Commissioner Bruce White supported the change.
Precinct 2 Commissioner Ron Cotton, who is also a recent addition to the court, initially raised questions but ultimately agreed.
Precinct 1’s James Deaver, the only remaining member of the 2015 court, was agreeable as well, but asked that members be chosen to represent each of the four county precincts and that the generic application ask which precinct the applicant lives in.
The court voted to create a generic application to be presented for approval at its next regular meeting.
It also agreed that the applications will be accepted at the county judge’s office, where copies will be made for the Commissioners Court before the forms are sent to the LAB.
It was agreed that going forward the court will review all applications rather than simply relying on those culled by the LAB.
“I’m elected to serve all the people of Hood County,” Massingill said. “I don’t think that we have any more political views on anything than the LAB (does).”
He added that the library “is for all the citizens of Hood County.”
Former County Judge Darrell Cockerham agreed with that sentiment when contacted by the HCN on Thursday.
He said that the court under his tenure made changes to the LAB “out of (the Tea Party’s) criticisms that it was not fair.”
Cockerham also said that while he understands religious objections to certain books, “It’s a public library. That means everybody.”
All those who serve on the LAB volunteer their time. One of those volunteers is Melanie Graft, the mother who first raised concerns about “This Day in June” after a trip to the library with her then-4-year-old daughter.
In the wake of the censorship controversy (which some book opponents said they did not view as censorship), Graft was added to the LAB.
She spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, and stated that the selection process has been unfair, and that it is the Commissioners Court’s responsibility to appoint the board’s members. Graft also said she feels that the group attempts to stifle free speech.
Nancy Sutherland, the board’s chair, told the HCN that Graft was appointed to the board by former Precinct 4 Commissioner Steve Berry “to appease the Tea Party.”
She said that Eagle sometimes attends the LAB’s meetings, and so does a member of the conservative Hood County Pastor Council. The clergyman was present at the Commissioners Court meeting.
“We have been,” she said, “under constant surveillance by the Tea Party.”
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