Bill would let Iowa city councils manage public libraries

DES MOINES — City councils would be able to strip Iowa public library boards of their authority and take over management of their city’s library under legislation that’s cleared an Iowa House subcommittee.

City councils would be able to hire or fire the library’s director and decide what books should be in the library. The bill is a response to a failed effort to get a graphic novel removed from the shelves in Pella’s library. Pella’s city council held a city-wide vote — which is allowed under current state law — that would have put the council in charge of the library, but the referendum narrowly failed last November.

“Please don’t overturn this by an end run around and legislate a way of stopping the vote,” Mary Timmer of Pella told legislators during a subcommittee hearing Thursday.

Several library directors and members of local library boards urged legislators to defeat the bill. Wade Dooley, a farmer from Albion, is chairman of the board of trustees for the public library in his town of fewer than 500 residents.

“This bill is a train wreck,” Dooley said. “It opens up all sorts of possibilities for very disastrous consequences if you get an activist city council that starts seesawing on what they believe for a library to be or not be. Our city council has barely any training to be a city council, now you also want them to run a library?” I’m sorry, but that’s not a good idea. This bill should be squashed.”

Amanda Brewer, director of the Harlan Community Library, says library boards receive extensive training in what’s involved in governing a library.

“Our city councils can’t step up and take on that role,” Brewer said. “They’re already maxed out on their responsibilities and they also need the buffer of the library board to protect them as a city and make the decisions that need to happen in the library.”

Republican Representative Carter Nordman of Adel said he’s heard privately from members of city councils as well as city administrators who have complaints about their public libraries that go beyond debates over books and content.

“The city council funds the libraries. There’s personnel issues. There are taxpayer dollars being spent and these are the individuals who are elected to make those decisions, so if there is issues with the library board, I think the buck stops at the city council,” Nordman said. “That’s why I think I am OK with moving this forward and continuing to have the conversation on making this bill better.”

The other Republican on the subcommittee said she had “reservations” about the bill, but voted to send it on to the House Local Government Committee to “continue the conversation.” The Democrat who served on the subcommittee said the bill “is a bad idea” and “there’s no reason for it.”