State Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, protested the use of public library meeting rooms for “Teacher Talks” forums held by his Democratic challenger, and he tried to pressure the libraries’ directors into canceling the events, according to interviews with the directors on Friday.
Buford confirmed calling the libraries in his own interview Friday, saying he believes it’s wrong for political events to be held in public buildings. Even President Trump’s political rally last Saturday at Eastern Kentucky University’s Alumni Coliseum, which Buford attended, “made me a little uncomfortable, because that’s a state building,” he said.
“I explained to (the librarians) I have been a very good friend of libraries and I did not think this was a very good use of public funds,” Buford said. “To me, it was unethical.”
Carolyn Dupont, the Democratic nominee in Senate District 22, has booked meeting rooms at five different libraries around the district over the last two weeks for forums with teachers to discuss education-related issues.
The heads of the Garrard and Jessamine County libraries said Buford — who has served in the Senate since 1991 — called them a week ago to complain about the forums. Both librarians said Buford was agitated and accused them of endorsing his opponent.
“Basically, he said if the event was held here, he couldn’t continue to support the library,” said Laura McWilliams, director of the Garrard County Public Library. “I was taken aback. It’s not that we’re being partisan. We’re not. This is a community space.”
Ron Critchfield, executive director of the Jessamine County Public Library, said he tried to walk the senator through his library’s policy on public meeting space. Anyone can book an available room for any legal purpose, such as community forums, including the senator himself, Critchfield said. But Buford was not calmed, he said.
“He was kind of upset. He thought that maybe there was some sort of a library partnership with or a library endorsement for (Dupont),” Critchfield said. “I assured him that was not the case.”
Critchfield said Buford then told him that, in the future, he will support a controversial piece of legislation odious to many Kentucky librarians. Filed in 2017 as Senate Bill 48, it would place limits on the taxing authority of local library boards by requiring their members to either be elected or appointed by an elected official, such as the county judge-executive.
Opponents of the bill, who successfully blocked it last year, say it would let county political bosses extend their influence to public libraries, which should be independently run resources for communities.
Critchfield said he hopes Buford would not actually support the bill out of anger over his opponent’s forums at libraries.
“Human beings, you know, they get upset,” Critchfield said. “Right now, I’m taking it in the most innocuous manner.”
On Friday, Buford said he has no plans to punish either library when the 2019 General Assembly convenes in January.
“I love those two librarians,” Buford said. “They’re great people. They run great libraries. I’ll continue to support the libraries. I don’t think it was their fault they were hoodwinked.”
Dupont, who is an American history professor at Eastern Kentucky University, said Friday that she had been unaware of Buford’s calls to the libraries. The librarians never told her about the behind-the-scenes drama, she said. Dupont’s Garrard County Teacher Talks was last Saturday; her Jessamine County forum is this Saturday.
“I’m shocked and saddened that he would use his office — really, abuse his office in this way,” Dupont said. “These are public spaces available to anyone. The libraries didn’t promote my events in any way. I was the one promoting them on Facebook. So the fact that he was threatening them if they didn’t cancel them is disappointing.”