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Friday, June 14, 2024
Library neutrality group filing integrity complaint
Andrew Porteus, left, and Tony Powell Powell are members of a group behind a petition calling on the NOTL Library Board to preserve library neutrality at the town's public library. RICHARD HUTTON

Members of a residents group concerned about the firing of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s chief librarian say they will be filing a complaint with the town’s integrity commissioner and seeking an investigation into the affair.

“We are in the process of preparing the complaint with the integrity commissioner and hoping to file it before the end of next week,” Tony Powell, a member of the group promoting library neutrality, told The Lake Report on Monday.

Speaking to council about the issue last week, he said the group wanted councillors to take the initiative and ask integrity commissioner Ted McDermott to conduct an investigation.

“We think it should come from council,” Powell said.

The group wants McDermott to examine the circumstances around the library board’s decision to fire chief librarian Cathy Simpson.

However, the town took no action in that regard and Coun. Gary Burroughs, who chaired last week’s meeting, noted that any resident can file a complaint with the commissioner.

The group maintains that Simpson did nothing wrong and in fact was abiding by library policies when she wrote an opinion piece in The Lake Report about Freedom to Read Week.

That prompted complaints from some library staff and at least one letter to the editor criticizing Simpson for supporting the positions of a U.S. organization, the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR), which has been labelled by some as a tool of the far right in the United States.

“This all smells,” Powell told councillors last week.

“The woman stands up and says there should be library neutrality. It’s right in line with the library’s own policies. All she did is support exactly what she’s supposed to,” he added.

The group is promoting library neutrality — the idea that libraries must carry a wide range of material representing many viewpoints, even controversial or offensive ones — and has now collected more than 800 names on an online petition supporting that cause.

At last week’s council meeting, the group emphasized that a vacancy on the library board should be filled by someone who supports library neutrality.

Powell’s presentation outlined some of the qualities council might consider in assessing possible candidates. None of the leaders of Powell’s group plan to seek the position.

Coun. Adriana Vizzari is the town’s representative on the library board and was part of the unanimous decision to fire Simpson.

In an interview last Thursday, she was asked her opinion on several issues, including Powell’s presentation to council, library neutrality, the overall library controversy, the lone public complaint about Simpson’s opinion piece and how the library board is accountable to the public.

She refused to comment.

“We see the presentation as a council. No decisions were made and there were no motions brought forward about library neutrality,” she said.

“I’m happy to speak about the library. I’m happy to speak about literacy, about programming, about lots and lots of things” the library is doing, she said.

She noted that “debates over library collections are not new,” but refused to express any opinion on the idea of library neutrality or the controversy.

“I have nothing to offer about library neutrality” and suggested instead speaking to Daryl Novak, co-chair of the library board.

During Powell’s 10-minute presentation to council, which was broadcast via livestreamed video, Vizzari can be seen reacting to some of the comments being made.

Some viewers expressed surprise and disappointment in Vizzari’s responses during the presentation.

In an email on Tuesday, she told The Lake Report, “I care deeply about the library and its role within our community, and I take my role as a member of the board very seriously.”

“If my on-camera reactions came across in any way that didn’t represent that, I apologize. That was not my intent at all.”

Given the opportunity to clarify her position on accountability, she wrote that the board “is accountable to the public by setting clear goals, developing action plans and executing them effectively. This is done through the board’s current 2021-2024 strategic plan.”

“As a town councillor, I am accountable during the budget process, which was completed at the beginning of the year and received council approval. We are also held accountable under the Public Libraries Act.”

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