Iowan asks Republican lawmakers to focus on real issues instead of picking on libraries

Iowa Senators and members of the public listen during a Monday subcommittee on bill to change public library operations in Iowa. Submitted photo

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By Ty Rushing

February 12, 2024

Wearing a green Raygun T-shirt that touted her support of public libraries, Anita Christensen of Indianola laid out a case for why Iowa’s Republican lawmakers should stay hands-off when it comes to libraries during a Monday Iowa Senate subcommittee on the topic.

“I believe that public libraries build community,” Christensen said. “What public entities invite all members of a community to one space? Public schools and public libraries. The public library has been an integral part of my family’s lives by providing resources and programs.”

Christensen was hoping to dissuade Republican Senators from advancing SSB 3168, which would allow city councils to oversee and change the practice related to “hiring a library director and utilize moneys collected pursuant to by ordinance and without a referendum.”

The bill advanced 2-1 with a recommendation for an amendment. Sen. Janice Wiener (D-Iowa City) was opposed and Republicans Sens. Jesse Green of Boone and Sen. Mike Klimesh of Spillville in favor.

This was the third such bill to come up in a week—SSB 3131 and HSB 678—that would redirect some control of libraries from local library boards directly to city councils, and many pointed out the direct connection of this bill to recent Republican book-baning efforts.

Last fall, Pella voters narrowly defeated a referendum effort to give the city council control of the library. The referendum effort was led by some residents who were upset that the library board refused to remove “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe and other LGBTQ books from shelves. 

The fight in Pella, one of Iowa’s most conservative communities, went on for several years before it was decided at the polls.   

Green, who introduced SSB 3131 and SSB 3168, downplayed the book-banning aspect of the legislation during Monday’s subcommittee. He said it was more about personnel issues between city councils and library directors.

As an example, Green said in a small community in his district—Senate District 24, which includes parts of Boone, Greene, Hamilton, Story, and Webster counties—the city council and the library were on opposite ends in a debate over child care in the town. The community, like many in Iowa, had a child-care shortage so the library stepped in to offer child-care services against the city council’s wishes.

“If the will of the [library] board goes against the will of the elected officials in that situation [then] they can’t control the mission of the library,” Green said.

Altoona Public Library Director Kim Kietzman noted that mayors already pick library board members and those selections have to be approved by a city council. She also noted her biggest concern with this bill was the language around referendums.

“Taking away the vote from the voters; there’s nothing more local who vote,” Kietzman said. “It’s important for them to have a direct say in how the library is run.”

The Iowa League of Cities is registered neutral on the bill and lobbyist Daniel Stadler said he’s heard from member communities who are both for the bill and against it. He said one person said their local library doesn’t follow the city’s human resources (HR) policies for hiring people, which is why that person does not support the legislation. 

Kietzman agreed libraries should follow HR policies but pondered how large is this sample size and why does the state need to get involved.

“If you’re not following HR policies, then you are not hiring appropriately—that is a local issue that is not every single library,” she said.    

With the exception of Stadler noting he’s had mixed feedback, there was not much in favor during the subcommittee or in the online comment portal, which Christensen, the library supporter from Indianola, took notice of.

“If there are people who are in favor, why do they not have the courage to speak publicly about why they want this bill,” she said. “I also took the time to read what the lobbyist had to say—only one group was in favor and that was a conservative religious group. That makes it hard to believe this is about personnel issues and not about controlling the books in our libraries. 

“Iowans are overwhelmingly saying they don’t want this bill,” Christensen said. “Please let’s cancel this bill and get back to bills that truly affect the lives of Iowans like clean water, child care, and mental health resources.”

Correction: A previous version of this story listed an incorrect Senate district in paragraph 9.

  • Ty Rushing

    Ty Rushing is the Chief Political Correspondent for Iowa Starting Line. He is a trail-blazing veteran Iowa journalist, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and co-founder and president of the Iowa Association of Black Journalists. Send tips or story ideas to [email protected] and find him on social media @Rushthewriter.

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