The General Assembly is considering a bill that could politicize public libraries by giving county judge-executives the power to pick whomever they want as board members.
Such a move allows for a power-grab to influence libraries at the expense of Kentuckians who rely on libraries’ many resources, such as internet access, computer classes, books, DVDs, reading groups and children’s activities.
The way board appointments work now is that a library collects applications for open seats. Board members identify the top two candidates for each seat and forward them to the Kentucky Department of Library and Archives, which then passes the two names to the county judge-executive to select one to serve.
Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, has sponsored Senate Bill 48 that would give county judge-executives, with fiscal court approval, the power to reject both nominees and pick whomever the judge-executive wanted if the nominees, “in the judge’s opinion, are not suitable.”
This broad authority would give judge-executives carte blanche to make library board seats patronage positions to be filled by cronies who could irreparably damage libraries. Imagine if the judge-executive’s agenda was to shut down the library by cutting all tax funding. A board stacked with the judge-executive’s lackeys could easily accomplish that.
I served on the library board in Calloway County until Judge-Executive Larry Elkins replaced me Feb. 2 — nearly six month after my term expired.
And he inexplicably is refusing to fill another seat that’s been vacant since August. The nominees are a retired Murray State University journalism professor and a national award-winning writer.
How is either not suitable?
The only explanation for his refusal is that none are his loyalists.
Proponents of SB 48 say they want to make library board members more accountable to the people, especially because library boards oversee operational budgets and approve tax rates that fund the libraries. But giving the power to the judge-executive still makes library board members one step removed from voters.
And while many Kentucky judge-executives are public servants of integrity, others have used that position over the years to enrich themselves or cheat the people they represent. Most recently Tim Conley of Morgan County was sentenced to prison. Why allow them direct control over libraries as well?
In my opinion, a better proposal is to elect library board members. Citizens already vote for those who serve on school boards and soil and water conservation commissions, which also rely on tax funds.
Senate Republican Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, successfully led efforts to make taxing districts more transparent. And he has, in the past, explored the idea of making more board members elected. That approach makes sense.
During my time on the Calloway County Public Library board, we cut the tax rates and the operational budget even as the library staff has increased programs, such as more computer classes, children’s activities and author visits. I’m proud of that and have been pleased to see many Calloway County residents attend the board’s meetings to watch those decisions get made.
Let’s keep Kentucky’s libraries independent and separate from local county politics.
SB 48 is scheduled for debate in the Senate State and Local Government Committee on Feb. 8. I would encourage you to call your state senator and state representative at 502-564-8100 and tell them to give people — not politics — the power over their libraries.
Journalist Ryan Alessi is a former member of the Calloway County library board and a former Herald-Leader reporter.