Damakant Jayshi

A majority of Marathon County Supervisors on Tuesday declined to reappoint two trustees to the Marathon County Public Library Board in apparent retaliation over their refusal to remove or relocate books from the facility, a controversy that erupted in recent months.

They also rejected a third appointment recommended by the Marathon County administrator for a candidate to complete the term of an existing library board member.

By a vote of 20-12, supervisors shot down Administrator Lance Leonhard’s proposal to reappoint Sharon Hunter, president of the Library Board of Trustees, and Michelle Van Krey, one of two supervisors on the library board, for a term of three years ending in December 2025. Hunter’s and Van Krey’s current terms end this month. Six supervisors of the 38-member board were absent on Tuesday.

Supervisors opposed to the reappointment said they could not approve Hunter and Van Krey since they failed to address their concerns over some books in the library. These supervisors, and a number of county residents, consider the books pornographic. Some among them have been asking that the books be removed from the public library while others wanted them moved from the juvenile section to the adult section.

Other residents and supervisors wanted the books to remain and asked the county board not to infringe on the liberty of others to decide what is acceptable to them. Critics of the demand to remove books said supervisors should respect the choice of everyone and said it is the choice and responsibility of parents to ensure what books are accessible to their children.

But that contention seems to have failed to move the majority on the county board. Neither has the fact that the books at issue were available in more than 50 other public libraries in Wisconsin, most of which were placed in the juvenile nonfiction section.

Banning books is a nationwide occurrence

PEN America, an advocacy organization that defends free speech and supports authors facing censorship risks, has noted that book bans have increased in recent times. In response, the group launched a Banned Books Week campaign. Between July 2021 and June 2022, PEN America says, there have been “2,532 instances of individual books being banned, affecting 1,648 unique book titles.”

Corporation Counsel Michael Puerner clarified that libraries have statutory protection over any content displayed in the library.

Board Vice Chair Craig McEwen, who had asked that the books be removed from the juvenile section, said he found the current composition of the Library Board of Trustees “lacking diversity of thought.” He pointed out that recently the Library Board unanimously voted to retain the challenged books.

Last month, the Library Board unanimously accepted the recommendation from a book review committee to retain the two books – ‘Making a Baby’ by Rachel Greener and Clare Owen and ‘You Be You! The Kids Guide to Gender, Sexuality and Family’ by Jonathan Branfman and Julie Benbassat – after hearing public comments and reviewing legal definitions and statute explanations governing library books. The decision was made after a brief rendering of library policy and the board’s limitation in restricting books on age and other grounds.

“Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents – and only parents – have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children – and only their children – to library resources,” the five-member review committee had said, pointing to the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights.

But that fell on deaf ears with some supervisors including McEwen, who said the library board failed to address concerns and needed to go in a “different direction.” He also said the county board is not required to follow what national associations recommend.

“We have to think about the people in Marathon County,” McEwen said.

Some supervisors seemed unaware of the nominating process and wanted to interview the applicants – whether seeking first-term or reappointments – at the meeting. They were also apparently unaware that the meeting packet listed each candidate’s resume.

Corporation Counsel Puerner said only the county administrator has the authority to bring nominations for various boards and commissions and the county board has the authority to accept or reject them.

Other members asked about the announcement of vacancies and the interview process. Administrator Leonhard said vacancies are posted on the county website and those interested are asked to fill out forms. He then conducts interviews before making recommendations.

Supervisor Tony Sherfinski said that the library board rejected a compromise over the books and added the board does not reflect “the current will of at least a sizeable portion of the Marathon County public, perhaps a strong majority.” He said Van Krey’s and Hunter’s judgment is “suspect and they do not reflect the will of the community at large.”

Sherfinski added that he dd not know the third nominee, Kathryn (Kay) Palmer, “by reputation or directly” but he would not support her because she has been apparently “promoted and highly recommended by Mayor Katie of Wausau. We tend to associate with people of like mind and I can’t support her for that reason.” Palmer was nominated to replace Jeff Campo, whose three-year term expires on Dec. 31, 2023 and has chosen to leave the position.

Supervisor David Baker said other supervisors are also interested in serving on the library’s Board of Trustees and added that he could not accept the idea that once appointed, members must be reappointed.

Van Krey said she was not planning to speak but because of comments made by her colleagues, she wanted to respond.

“If you want to insult me, at least have the courage to look me (in the) eye,” Van Krey said.

She also questioned the assertion that a majority of the county public wanted the books to be removed or banned from the library, terming that assertion a “speculation.” Van Krey said she has been active in the community for 7-8 years and has been recognized in public for the work that she has done advocating for the library. She said will not stop advocating for the library and the people in Marathon County even if the county board rejected her reappointment.

McEwen responded to the remarks by claiming he was not trying to insult anyone and his comments are not personal.

Earlier, Supervisor John Robinson cautioned against selective side-taking. “I have heard a lot of adjectives and adverbs…‘We want people honestly act and look at all sides of the issue as long as they agree with our side’ is my fear,” he said. He asked his colleagues to support the three candidates.

Supervisor Ann Lemmer also supported the candidates and said it is inaccurate to say the library board is not addressing concerns over the books since the group did move one challenged book to the adult section. She said that moving all challenged books could be a “slippery slope” as it might expose children to the materials in the adult section.

Chair Kurt Gibbs again warned that taking any action against the library board members over books could be seen as retaliation and could expose the county to “significant liability.” He also said 72 other libraries made the challenged books available. In previous meetings, he had warned that reducing the funding for Marathon County Public Library could be deemed punitive and risked attracting a lawsuit against the county.

Some supervisors had attempted to drastically reduce the funding for MCPL in an attempt to send a message to the library’s oversight body. But the large funding cuts to the library and some other organizations were defeated by an overwhelming majority of the county board during the budget discussion last month.

Supervisor Jacob Langenhan’s attempt to have all the three nominees individually voted upon failed on procedural grounds, with an equal number of those present supporting and opposing his proposal.

County Administrator to offer nominees to county board on Jan. 19

County Administrator Leonhard plans to offer new candidates for consideration by the Marathon County Board of Supervisors educational meeting on Jan. 19.

“I understand that those candidates would then be voted upon at the Board’s January 24, 2023, meeting,” Leonhard told Wausau Pilot & Review, when asked to comment on the path ahead. “I have asked that any members of the County Board interested in serving on the Marathon County Public Library Board provide me information relative to their interest.”

With respect to the citizen members, Leonhard intends to review his notes from my previous interviews of interested individuals and speak with any other individuals that have expressed interest since that time. He would then nominate “two candidates for consideration at the Board meetings referenced above.”