A new chapter: House Bill 89 alters the future of the North Shelby Library Board

Published 5:13 pm Monday, June 3, 2024

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By NOAH WORTHAM | Managing Editor

After nearly 36 years of being the only library system in the state to have an election-based board, the North Shelby Library Board will soon be dramatically altered after the passage of a recent bill.

House Bill 89 was officially enacted on April 26 after being signed by Gov. Kay Ivey and approved by the House of Representatives and the Senate. The bill was introduced by the Shelby County Legislative Delegation which is comprised of nine representatives—including three senators that represent the Shelby County area.

House Bill 89 amended a section of the original 1988 legislation for the library district so that the five member library board is now created by the appointment of the legislative delegation rather than through a public election. The bill also added the requirement that at least one member of the board shall be an owner of commercial property in the district.

The North Shelby Library Board was originally formed out of convenience to serve the district in an unincorporated part of north Shelby County. At its original formation, the board for the library district was designated based upon public election which made the North Shelby Library Board the only one of its kind in the entire state to be based upon election and not appointment.

According to State Rep. Susan Dubose, who also serves on the Shelby County Legislative Delegation, they saw a need to change the way the board is selected.

“I’m very excited about the opportunity,” Dubose said. “I think the public will be excited when they see who the board is (that) is appointed. I think it will give them confidence in the system and confidence that their taxpayer dollars are being handled properly and that they are being well-represented in the community.”

Despite support from multiple legislators, there has been opposition to the changes in House Bill 89, including from multiple members of the current North Shelby Library Board.

Tim Ryan, who has served on the North Shelby Library Board off and on for 20 years and currently serves as its member at large, described the new legislation as “overreach.”

“We should let the people of the district decide who should be on the board,” Ryan said.

Locating leaders

Typically, libraries are funded by individual municipalities, however when there came a need for a library in 1988 for the residents of unincorporated Shelby County, an unorthodox system of providing services and funding for a library would be needed.

“The district was formed to be made up of the unincorporated sections of Shelby County to form a library out here,” Dubose said. “It was essential because of convenience. There was no municipality here, so nobody really had a library to go to.”

After the North Shelby Library Board was established  in 1988, a public election was held every two years. However, no one who ran for a position ever faced opposition and were subsequently elected without the need for a public ballot.

“In 36 years that this library has existed, there has never been an election—no one on the board has been opposed,” Dubose said. “So, that’s why it just makes sense (for them) to be appointed by elected officials just like every other library in the whole state.”

According to North Shelby Library Board President Morgan Barnes, there has never been a balloted election for a board opening because there were never multiple candidates vying for a spot.

The  Shelby County Legislative Delegation blamed the lack of opposition in elections on the North Shelby Library Board members.

“Since the establishment of the library district, library board members have never had opposition to their position, due to a failure of the current board inadequately publicly advertising how to run for the position each year an election was to be held,” read an official release by the Shelby County Legislative Delegation. “Essentially making them a publicly funded board with no oversight.”

According to Barnes, board openings were published online and flyers were posted at the library.

“If there was interest in the board seats, people could go to Columbiana and they could say, ‘I want to run for spot for the North Shelby Library election in September of whatever year,’” Ryan said.

Before the passage of HB89, if a board member resigned while serving their term, the remaining four members would select the replacement which occurred recently when Lucy Edwards resigned in summer 2023. Now, in the event an appointee on the board resigns, the replacement will be determined in the same manner as the original appointment for the unexpired term of the vacant position.

Each board member will serve a four-year term, however, there are currently no plans for term limits for the Shelby County Legislative Delegation’s future appointees for the North Shelby Library Board.

“We, of course, will look at the makeup of the board and we will be able to make sure that we have a representative board with a diverse amount of experience,” Dubose said. “We will keep that in mind as we reappoint people, but we’re not going to limit somebody to just a set term, at least not at this point.”

Dubose said that legislators believe that the appointment-based system will allow them to create a diverse board that reflects the district it serves and that they can involve themselves in the application process.

“We will be able to select a board that’s diverse, reflective of the community, that has different professional experience that can well represent the county,” Dubose said. “(And) to handle a large budget and has the will to listen to the people, to make sure that they are thoroughly transparent, to make sure that we have an audit. When you’re handling taxpayer dollars, transparency is of utmost importance and accountability.”

However, Ryan shared that he believes that the system for selecting members of the board should have been left the same way it was originally drafted.

“That’s what the voters of this district bargained for, that’s what they put into place,” Ryan said. “If it’s going to be vox populi, then we should stick with that.”

Barnes also disagreed with changing the system of selection for the board.

“(The board) was voted for and established by the voters of north Shelby County,” he said. “HB89 completely disregards the rights of the citizens of Shelby County. The current board has done nothing wrong but will be removed without cause and replaced by political appointees.”

Fiscal friction

Despite not typically being in the public eye, library boards play a crucial role in the management and day-to-day operations of libraries.

The North Shelby Library Board operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit under the direction of five board members that serve without compensation.

“The board is there to make sure that the library is compliant with all local, state and federal laws and that we’re financially secure and we’re good stewards of the people in the district’s money,” Ryan said.

The board serves the population of the district which is comprised of approximately 50,000 people. In addition to its operation of the North Shelby Library, the board is also responsible for the Mt Laurel Library which services the Dunnavant Valley region of the county.

“The board of directors is important because they take in all of the money, they receive all of the dues,” Dubose said. “They make all of the decisions of how the money is to be spent. They in of themselves make every library decision and it’s grown over the 36 years to be quite a large budget.”

According to the North Shelby County Library’s approved budget for fiscal year 2024, it has a total revenue of $1,507,959.84 with a total cost of goods sold at $1,061,150 and total expenditures of $446,809.84.

The library district’s budget is funded through an assessment gathered from residents and businesses zoned in the district—including $15 annually from residents and $34 annually from businesses.

The Shelby County Legislative Delegation expressed concerns over the board previously, with the delegation alleging a lack of oversight as well as issues with the collection of fees by the board.

“We realize the importance of selecting a North Shelby Library Board that will work with Shelby County officials, Shelby County Commission, residents and business owners to properly oversee the collection of required district library dues,” read an official release by the Shelby County Legislative Delegation. “The collection of library dues, fines, penalties and liens on homes has been a source of concern for residents and businesses in the library district since the formation of the district and we believe that the changes HB89 will implement will provide oversight and transparency.”

Vice President of the North Shelby Library Board Ann Price shared that potential changes to the collection of fees could be a detriment to funding of the district’s libraries.

“The delegation statement on HB89 says that the collection of fees has been a source of concern that should be addressed,” Price said. “The board’s concern is that eliminating or reducing the fee, as implied by the delegation’s statement, would defund the library and its Mt Laurel branch and cause both to fail.”

According to Price, the library board does not receive any tax money from Shelby County and the $15 annual assessment from households in the district funds 90 percent of the North Shelby Library’s annual budget.

“What we fear with HB89 is not so much losing our seats, but a genuine concern that an entirely new board will be overwhelmed with the dual responsibilities of dealing with the current culture war issues while at the same time carrying out all the physical/financial responsibilities that come with running an independent library,” Price said.

Ryan also expressed concerns that the legislation will harm the library’s staff and patrons.

“We’re not overly well funded and we’re trying to do a lot with a little and the folks this really hurts are, A, the staff at the library because they’re very, very dedicated people,” Ryan said. “But even more, it hurts the people in the district who use the library every day or every week. They’re the ones who (will be affected when) materials may not be available, programs may not be available because of what Montgomery is doing now on a wider scale. And so, at the end of the day, I don’t think anyone wins here.”

Alongside other concerns with the previous board, according to the Shelby County Legislative Delegation, local businesses expressed concerns over having a lack of representation which led to an amendment in HB89 that requires the board to now have at least one member who is the owner of commercial property in the district.

“For many years, the business community within the library district has felt underrepresented, despite also being subject to the district library fee,” read an official release by the Shelby County Legislative Delegation. “Their inclusion will help the library board to have fair and equitable representation.”

According to Barnes, owning a business in north Shelby County would not have impacted any of the decisions he made as a board member.

“What is the added benefit of that?” he said. “You have board members (that have) all worked for top 500 companies—State Farm insurance, AT&T—you’ve had professionals that have been in there. And just because we didn’t own a business within north Shelby County, that didn’t change anything about any of the decisions I would have made as a board member.” 

Political predicament

Controversy regarding the North Shelby Library Board first began in summer 2023 after certain residents expressed concern over the location of a LGBTQ+ display in the North Shelby Library’s children’s section.

During the controversy, Lucy Edwards, who served on the library board at the time, proposed the North Shelby Library Board remove its policy that keeps the board from selecting the library’s books and programs.

After hearing remarks at a meeting from citizens that were in favor of the display’s location and comments that were against its location, the board at the time decided to maintain its policy to leave the decision-making for programs and materials in the library to the library’s staff.

“(Librarians) qualify to approve books and approve programs for the library,” Barnes said. “The board depends on the staff of the library for a reason. They’re trained in their job, they have to go school for this, we have not.”

Given the new appointment system and those who make the selection, Barnes expressed concerns over potential political biases of a board appointed through the new system.

“The original board was created to serve all citizens of the North Shelby Library District,” Barnes said. “Will a politically appointed board be free to address and support the needs of all citizens fairly, or just the ones that vote the way the appointees do?”

According to Dubose, the previous controversy over the LGTBQ+ display at the library was not the reason for the new legislation, but she shared that it did factor in creating concern over how the board operated.

“While this legislation has absolutely nothing to do with that decision at all—this is something that’s been in the works as I said for many, many years—I do think it got more of the community to look at the way the library board operates,” Dubose said.

When asked if he thinks the new appointment-based system might infringe upon library’s resources, Ryan said it may create more subjectivity in how the library is ran.

“I think it’s easier for folks to maybe be a little more subjective on how the library’s run—that includes materials (and) programs,” he said.

Ryan also argued that the selection of material in the library’s collection should be left to the handling of librarians and not the board.

“That’s why we have professional librarians working there,” Ryan said. “We don’t have volunteers, we have people with master’s degrees who are librarians. That’s what they do, that’s their job. And so, I think that we should continue to let them do their job and stay out of their way.”

According to Barnes, concern over the library’s collection and materials extends beyond the North Shelby Library Board as four employees have resigned due to alleged abuse from the public over the last year as well concerns over potential future changes to the North Shelby Library’s collection.

“If you knew any single one of those individuals, you’d know that they’re all quality individuals that only care about the welfare of the patrons coming into the library,” Barnes said. “They’ve resigned because their fear is that the new board is going to come implement policies that they can’t live with.”

The library’s future

The amendments contained in House Bill 89 officially went into effect on Saturday, June 1 and applications for appointment to the new board officially opened the same day.

The current library board, which consists of Barnes, Ryan, Price, Kay Kelley and Beth Ronilo, have not been notified of when they will be removed from office for the installation of the new appointees and will continue to offer services as normal until such time.

According to Dubose, there is an open application process and the current members of the board are welcome to apply for appointment.

Ryan said that he does know if the other members of the board will run for reappointment and he has not yet decided himself. Barnes said he will not apply for reappointment on the new board.

Applications for the North Shelby Library Board are open as of June 1 and applications for the board may be mailed or emailed to the Shelby County Legislative Office. All applications emailed for consideration must be submitted to the Shelby County Legislative Office by 5 p.m. on June 30 and any mailed applicants must be postmarked on or before June 30.

The five new members of the board will be chosen by Dubose, Rep. Jim Carns, Rep. Arnold Mooney, Sen. J.T. Waggoner and Sen. Dan Roberts.

“If you want to look at a positive that has come out of all of this discussion, it’s that people  (are) fighting for libraries,” Dubose said. “I think in the long run, our libraries (are) going to be stronger and better funded than ever.”