Amidst packed house, city council votes to reappoint MPL board of trustees president

T-R PHOTOS BY ROBERT MAHARRY — Marshalltown Public Library Board of Trustees President Tonya Gaffney addresses the city council on Monday night after her reappointment was pulled from the consent agenda. The council ultimately voted to approve her reappointment by a 5-1 margin.

With one of the biggest crowds in recent memory packed inside the council chambers and a majority of the attendees in the room to support Marshalltown Public Library Board of Trustees President Tonya Gaffney, the city council voted 5-1 to reappoint Gaffney to serve a six-year term on the board during Monday night’s regular meeting before a round of applause broke out in the audience.

Councilor Gary Thompson requested that the item be pulled from the consent agenda in response to an ongoing controversy over the board’s 2022 decision not to subscribe to a pair of conservative publications — The Epoch Times newspaper and American Rifleman magazine. Thompson opened his remarks by joking that he didn’t want he didn’t want the whole room to turn on him as he loved and used the library, but he said he pulled the item because he feels it should be for everyone, regardless of political affiliation. He added that the library board had originally voted down purchasing subscriptions to the periodicals, but in his words, it has become “a whole new issue” since patrons have offered them at no cost — a comment which drew a point of order interjection from fellow Councilor Barry Kell.

“We’re not talking about a topic specific to periodicals. We’re talking about the appointment of a board member,” Kell said.

Mayor Joel Greer said he tended to agree with Kell and felt the issue being discussed wasn’t political. Thompson then concluded by arguing that as the board president, Gaffney has the power to put items on the agenda for monthly meetings, and he didn’t feel the subscription issue was settled or “water under the bridge” as it had sometimes been described.

“If the library truly wants to stand and say that it’s for everybody — that’s liberals, conservatives and independents like me — that’s everybody, and that’s all I want is just the library to have things there and board members who truly believe the library should serve all 43,000 people in the county,” Thompson said.

Rep. Sue Cahill (D-Marshalltown) was one of several public commenters who spoke up in support of Gaffney and the library during Monday night’s meeting.

Councilor Mike Ladehoff quickly responded, in his own remarks, with a blunt opening: “Gary, you’re wrong.” As Ladehoff began to provide a history of libraries, fellow Councilor Greg Nichols called a point of order on him.

“Isn’t this the same issue as Mr. Kell brought up?” Nichols asked.

Nevertheless, Ladehoff continued and said library boards were created to protect from “politics and skullduggery” and worry about operations and the quality of material inside of it. He then praised Gaffney as a person and an educator — and for donating her time as a member of the board.

“She understands full well what that means protecting the quality of the materials in the library, and I just think that we need to remember that that is what is in the Iowa Code. That is why we don’t have a city council that just runs the library too,” Ladehoff said. “Because politics being what they may, agendas being what they may, our forefathers understood that that would hurt libraries.”

He felt it would be beneath the council not to reappoint Gaffney. Several public commenters then stepped forward, including Linda Holvik, who thanked the council for filling the gap left by the loss of the standalone library levy and called the facility a cornerstone of the community. Friends of the Library Board President Jeff Hutton also offered his support for Gaffney, sharing that the Friends and the Board of Trustees have enjoyed a great working relationship throughout his tenure and calling the library a “lighthouse” for community activities.

Serina Stabenow said she loved the library but had recently been able to check out a magazine called “Women and Weed” before it was later removed. She also noted that marijuana is currently illegal in the state of Iowa but firearms are not — a likely reference to the board’s decision against subscribing to American Rifleman — and felt that if one should be allowed, then so should the other.

After the meeting, Library Youth Services Coordinator Joa LaVille responded to Stabenow’s claim.

“People donate many things to our free box at the library and anyone is welcome to take those. This includes the Epoch Times — it may have included another magazine, like the one Serina spoke about. We have not removed any holding in our collection like this, as that would have to go through the reconsideration process,” she said.

On Wednesday morning, LaVille sent another email to the newspaper clarifying that the magazine in question was, in fact, part of the library’s collection.

“My main point I was trying to correct is that she said brought it to staff’s attention and we got rid of it — which is not how the reconsideration process works. I just knew that if we did have it and someone submitted a reconsideration complaint, I would have known about that,” LaVille said. “The fact that we do have it means that it did meet the collection development guidelines — which is not based on whether we agree or disagree with a topic. And once we have something in our collection, it is only removed due to collection management guidelines (dated information, lack of circulation, condition of item), not because someone objects to it. The only way an objection leads to removal is through the reconsideration process.”

Leigh Bauder recounted her own experiences with the library but added that, as a Christian, she took issue with characterizations of The Epoch Times as a strictly Christian or religious magazine, although it is owned and operated by adherents of the Falun Gong religious movement.

Library Director Sarah Rosenblum thanked everyone in the audience for their support, and Gaffney herself then took center stage. While she didn’t wish to go into details at the podium, she felt Thompson’s characterization of the situation “wasn’t completely correct” but offered to explain herself to anyone willing to reach out to her.

“I’ve just been really humbled the last couple of days since (I heard) rumor that this would be pulled from consent. I’ve had lots of people reach out to me and thank me for my service and express to me that they feel like I’m the right person for the job,” she said. “I also would be honored to continue in this position mostly because I love to read and I love to grow readers. That’s what I do for a living. That’s my profession, and so I love to serve in that capacity as well.”

Ray Mitchem, a retired science teacher who has been one of the strongest proponents of the two publications being added to the library collection — especially the Epoch Times — felt Gaffney should be reappointed because he thought the problems ran deeper than her. While he sang the praises of The Epoch Times, Ladehoff called another point of order, and Mitchem concluded by reiterating that there is “good stuff” inside of its pages.

Erin Carpenter told the council she appreciated the library board’s willingness to curate a relevant and accessible collection of information and noted that anyone seeking out other media outlets could find them on the internet at the library. She also wondered if the individuals calling for the inclusion of the two publications would feel the same way about the Gay Times, Ceasefire magazine or periodicals supporting the Black Lives Matter or Freedom from Religion movements or the Communist Party of the USA, which drew another point of order from Nichols.

“I’m glad we have a library board who is willing to stand for inclusion of everyone and not supporting media that has a strong bias or factual errors,” she said.

Mark Eaton, who has attended the library board meetings in support of adding the publications, also called on the board to reappoint Gaffney and hoped she would get the board “back on task” with its Freedom to Read policy.

Shelley Barron, the former director of the Le Grand Pioneer Heritage Library, looked at the situation as a question of whether the board, under Gaffney’s leadership, had kept sound budgets, followed Iowa Code with regard to open meetings, appointed eligible board members, made the library accessible to all and followed its mission statement. In her view, the board had checked all of those boxes, and thus, Barron couldn’t see any reason to reject Gaffney’s reappointment.

After a final question from Jim Shaw about what exactly a point of order actually meant practically, the council voted 5-1 to reappoint Gaffney with Thompson as the lone dissenter. A round of applause broke out in the room, and the crowd in the chambers then thinned out considerably as the meeting proceeded. In addition to the remarks on the specific agenda item, there were several comments in support of Gaffney and the library made during the public comment period at the beginning of the meeting.

During a subsequent interview, Gaffney elaborated on why she felt Thompson’s comments were inaccurate — the way she saw it, the board’s unanimous rejection of the two publications, which can still be donated to the library’s “free box,” was more than just a dollars and cents decision.

“We also reviewed our collection development policy, and the Epoch Times, in particular, did not meet several of the items in that policy,” she said. “If you fact check, they’re not considered a credible or reliable source… Librarians have sources that they go to to see what materials are widely trusted, and the Epoch Times isn’t on any of those lists.”

Currently, there are no public libraries in Iowa that subscribe to The Epoch Times and only a handful around the country.

“It’s just not meeting the requirements to be part of the collection,” Gaffney said.

In an email, LaVille offered more clarification on where patrons who still wish to read The Epoch Times can find it at the library.

“I have not personally had an inquiry from anyone wanting to check out the Epoch Times (as everyone I know who wants to read it subscribes to it), but if I did I would recommend they check the free box,” she said. “We are not removing it from the free box; we are just not adding it to our collection. I know, if asked, info staff would also help people access it online, as some articles can be accessed that way.”

Rosenblum also told the T-R she was thrilled with Gaffney’s reappointment and the level of public support she received Monday night.

“I was overwhelmed by the support, and I think we had a variety of our community members. I saw some kids, I saw some of our diverse community. And I think maybe there were some people that thought because they weren’t hearing a lot from people who support the library that maybe they didn’t, and I think it boils down to (the fact that) people were happy and they didn’t feel any need to make a big show of support whereas today, when people learned that Tonya was up for reappointment they wanted to come and make sure that that happened,” Rosenblum said. “I’m thrilled. She is a great board president, and she is very thoughtful. And I think because she has a very quiet manner, people don’t realize, but she has a lot of resolve and strength. And she takes it very seriously.”

In other business, the council:

• Approved the remainder of the consent agenda with the exception of two items regarding the appointment of Gabe Isom to the planning and zoning commission and the board of adjustment, which were pulled for further discussion.

• Approved accepting and awarding the bid for grinding and disposing of wood material at the compost facility to Handeland Grinding for an amount not to exceed $58,000.

• Approved setting a public hearing on the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) for the fiscal years ending June 30, 2024-2028.

• Approved a resolution in support of the Iowa Workforce Housing Tax Credits application to be submitted to the Iowa Economic Development Authority for a housing development project by Commercial Edge.

• Approved the second reading of an ordinance amendment to Chapter 91 of city code related to violation penalties for fire prevention and protection.


Contact Robert Maharry at 641-753-6611 ext. 255 or rmaharry@timesrepublican.com.


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