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Niagara Falls
Tuesday, May 21, 2024
Town rejects library neutrality group’s bid to address council
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 community group that want the town’s integrity commissioner to investigate the circumstances around the firing of NOTL’s chief librarian were taken aback Monday to learn they will not be allowed to address town council.

The group promoting library neutrality — the idea that libraries carry a wide range of material representing many viewpoints — was informed by the town clerk’s department that their pitch to speak to council on May 14 doesn’t meet the rules and policies for delegations.

While library board members are appointed by the municipal council, it is “an autonomous board that operates separate from town council,” deputy clerk Shaunna Arenburg told the group via email.

“The decisions of the board are not approved nor defeated by council.”

Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa told The Lake Report he supports “the clerk’s decision to follow the policy of council with respect to delegations.”

Group members, who said they had consulted some councillors about how to ensure they could speak at council, were told to take the request to the library board instead.

Tony Powell, one of the members of the library neutrality group, said he was “flabbergasted” by the news.

“My first thought was that there was an attempt to thwart us, but thought that it would get sorted out,” he said.

“Regardless of how this first round goes, we are not going away. This does not end the matter.”

Powell said it’s important for councillors to hear the presentation.

And although he feels it is “appropriate for the board to step down or be obliged to step down,” realistically he wants council to order an investigation by the integrity commissioner “into this whole sorry matter.”

The town’s website notes that any member of the public also can file a complaint seeking an investigation by integrity commissioner Ted McDermott.

The group has compiled more than 750 names on an online petition protesting the NOTL Public Library board’s firing of CEO and chief librarian Cathy Simpson after she wrote an opinion piece in The Lake Report in February marking Freedom to Read Week.

The petition says the library failed “to follow its own policies for protecting library neutrality and viewpoint diversity, and its attempts to ban books or change policies to restrict access to information.”

Simpson cited viewpoints of the U.S.-based Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR), which has been labelled by some as a tool of the far right in the United States.

FAIR executive director Monica Harris refuted those claims and said accusations of the group being far right are misinformed.

A second group, the Association of Library Professionals, has also come to Simpson’s defence. She has declined to comment on the situation.

Powell said libraries “should be a bastion of free expression and a forum for various viewpoints.”

As well, they need to “aspire to neutrality and collect materials that may be unpopular and even offensive to some members of the community.”

In a written response to questions from The Lake Report, town clerk Grant Bivol said, “The decision to deny the delegation request was made in accordance with council’s delegation policy, which specifies that agenda delegations must pertain to matters within council’s statutory jurisdiction.”

That policy, contained on Schedule A of the town’s procedural bylaw, outlines two kinds of delegations: an agenda delegation and a non-agenda delegation.

The library group noted its application was for the latter and the policy appears to have no restrictions about council jurisdiction related to non-agenda delegations.

The town was asked for clarification on that aspect but none was received by deadline.

“The appointment and oversight of a library’s CEO falls under the authority of the public library board,” Bivol stated.

“The CEO is an employee of the board, not the municipality, and reports solely to the board.”

“Consequently, the request did not meet council’s delegation criteria.”

Jeff Sykes, another member of the library neutrality group, said, “Results of what the library board does and how it performs lies directly on the shoulders of the town council. They have appointed this board and funded close to a million dollars to operate it.”

“Council needs to oversee its budget, expenditures and conduct on behalf of the taxpayer. To silence (almost) 800 signatures of residents because of fear of controversy shows a lack of courage and integrity,” he said.

Coun. Wendy Cheropita said she is in favour of council hearing from the group, which she called “passionate” and “polite, not aggressive.”

“They’re not asking for Cathy’s job to be reinstated or something extreme. They just want to make sure that council is aware of how residents feel about this. And I think that’s important,” she said in an interview Tuesday.

With the amount of support the group has garnered, “You cannot deny them. Residents ultimately pay for library costs,” she said.

“And her severance is going to be covered by the residents. So, I think they have every right to be able to be heard.”

The clerk’s delegation denial can be overturned by a two-thirds vote of councillors present at a meeting and on Wednesday afternoon Cheropita was canvassing her colleagues to see if there were enough votes to support such a move.

Coun. Sandra O’Connor was concerned about personnel matters being debated in public and noted the Public Library Act governs libraries, not town council.

As for supporting a vote allow the delegation to speak to council, O’Connor said she’d have to think about it.

“I’m not sure. I can’t say off the top of my head because I haven’t looked at all the pros and cons of that. And I hate to say something off the top of my head, because that’s a really tricky issue.”

“I am in favour of public engagement and letting everybody know, and transparency,” she said in an interview Wednesday. But potentially dealing with a personnel issue publicly concerned her.

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