By Clint Confehr
COLUMBIA, TN — With explanations about bylaws on representation within and beyond city lines, Maury County commissioners didn’t re-elect the African-American on their public library board of trustees.
“It is not racial,” Charlsie Estes of Terrapin Branch Road, Mt. Pleasant, told commissioners Aug. 21. “No one is struggling with phobias and no one is a Nazi,” she said, alleging the library had “a pornographic book.”
Estes cited George M. Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue” on his adolescence and identity. The library removed it before Aug. 21. Commission discussion is streaming at maurycounty-tn.gov/129/Agendas-Minutes. The library’s June 2022 Pride Month book display was controversial at its board meeting in October.
Since then, “We have been working diligently to address public comments … from public delegations to the library board,” Dr. Christa Martin, now a former library trustee, told commissioners, reporting trustees plan to “rectify” the situation by culling the collection and consulting other libraries.
“I have done copious research on what’s going on with books and … authors in our society,” Martin said. “Things are definitely changing. There was an age change [regarding young adult books] made in our library about 18 months ago. We are prepared to move that age back to where it was…”
On a 17-4 vote, Martin, a city planning commissioner and former vice mayor, was replaced by Rita Parks of Culleoka who, according to her county commissioner, Jerry Bridenbaugh, called “several months ago” about library trustee service.
Parks is an advocate for Culleoka and its schools. She’s been in real estate for decades. Martin is the assistant for Columbia State Community College’s president on access and diversity.
It’s not a gender or race issue, Bridenbaugh said. It’s “to realign” library board membership under bylaws that, he said, call for: three trustees from Columbia; one from Mt. Pleasant; and three from unincorporated parts of the county.
There were five, then four trustees living in Columbia and subsequently three. Right after the vote, Library Trustee Brian McKelvy of Columbia “quit because they were playing the wrong politics.” His term expires in October 2024. Martin’s term was ending. McKelvy, a former county commissioner, said “something happened to the [commission] agenda” regarding appointments. Commission Chairman Eric Previti said “the posted agenda” didn’t include the trustee appointment, but another version did. County Mayor Sheila Butt and the county administrative committee chair prepare agendas. Butt was at a conference late last week.
Blacks lost library board representation after reactions to the Pride Month book display, McKelvy said. “Martin should have remained on the board.”
Commissioner Carl McCullen said “If somebody wanted to be reappointed, we always honored that.” Noting requirements for equal treatment, Commissioner Gary Stovall said Commissioner Connie Green of Columbia was appointed to the board. “You’re not abiding by what you should be doing.”
A sign in the library’s Young Adult book section states “Books in YA are written for the 13-18 demographic. What may be suitable for an 18-year-old may not be for a 13-year-old. Parents, you may wish to help your children make age-appropriate reading choices. We trust parents to decide what is and is not appropriate for their children…”
A cursory view of YA books found mentions of Nazis, Vietnam, the Holocaust, disabilities, gender inequities in sports, Ronald Reagan’s attempted assassination, and a teen girls’ guide to boys with passages on going steady.
Estes alleged Johnson’s book is “sexualizing children” and library trustees changed policy after receiving a July 17 letter from District Attorney Brent Cooper. It says passages of Johnson’s book “likely contain explicit and detailed verbal descriptions or narrative accounts of sexual excitement and sexual conduct which, if made available to a minor … could constitute a violation” of law, but not if a child is supervised by their parent, guardian or an authorized adult.
McKelvy said: library trustees recommended re-election of Martin; the library has more than 100,000 books; and books not borrowed often are purged.
County Attorney Daniel Murphy noted Columbia residents live in Maury County and Martin was the only Black on the board. “That could become an issue of perception. That’s up to you.”