23.6 C
Niagara Falls
Friday, June 14, 2024
Opinion: Group supports library neutrality and integrity investigation
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

The following is an abridged version of the presentation that Niagara-on-the-Lake resident Tony Powell prepared for delivery to town council on May 14. The group’s petition now has more than 800 signatures.

I am representing close to 800 residents of Niagara-on-the-Lake who signed a petition in support of library neutrality and over concerns of the actions in March of the current library board in firing Cathy Simpson, the CEO of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library.

We believe that council should fill the vacancy on the board with someone who believes in library neutrality and following library policies for the following reasons. We have concerns about:

  1. The board’s failure to follow its own policies for protecting library neutrality and viewpoint diversity.
  1. The firing of library CEO Cathy Simpson by the library board, over her opinion piece in favour of library neutrality.
  1. The waste of taxpayer money to censor a competent and long-serving employee who stands in defence of intellectual freedom.
  1. The board’s attempts to ban books or change policies to restrict access to information.

We believe that as a result of these concerns the vacancy on the library board must be filled by a new member who believes in library neutrality and following library policies.

We also believe that an investigation by the integrity commissioner is warranted with respect to our concerns.

We believe you have an obligation to the residents who are members of the library and who will ultimately bear the cost of the library board’s decision, to refer this matter to the integrity commissioner for investigation.

Cathy Simpson was fired, by the library board, from her job as chief librarian at age 61, just three years shy of retirement.

She has never had a negative performance review. Her employment was terminated without notice and without cause by the library board because she spoke up in favour of library neutrality.

How did this come about? Well, she wrote an opinion piece during Freedom to Read Week published in The Lake Report on Feb. 22.

Simpson supported Freedom to Read Week principles, including intellectual freedom, freedom of expression, freedom to read and resistance to censorship particularly the trend of censorship by library staff.

In setting out these arguments, Simpson ably exemplified the library’s own collection development policy, which says it is committed “to intellectual freedom while protecting the collection from societal and political pressures.”

The following week a letter to the editor of The Lake Report from one resident was published. This individual characterized Simpson’s words as political statements when her article was nothing more than promoting neutrality and intellectual freedom.

Rather than rebut her views, this one resident carefully came to false, harmful and misleading conclusions that the library board then reacted to.

It should be noted that the board only reacted after the publication of this one resident’s letter to the editor.

Should the board have taken a more reasoned, negotiated path, rather than firing Simpson without notice and without cause which could have invited a wrongful dismissal lawsuit?

When certain staff members, who reacted sympathetically to the content of this individual’s letter to the editor, threatened to quit, should their resignations have been accepted rather than fire the CEO, who holds a master of library science degree?

We are concerned that the board took action against Simpson after receiving a letter from the library manager. This letter, purporting to be on behalf of all staff, criticized Simpson. This library manager benefited from the board’s decision as she replaced Simpson and presumably received a salary increase.

Have any books, purchased with taxpayers’ money, been removed or are being removed from circulation, in violation of the library’s policies?

We believe it is important for council to appoint a board member who believes in the following fundamental principles:

  1. Libraries should be a bastion of free expression and a forum for various viewpoints.
  1. Public libraries need to aspire to neutrality and collect materials that may be unpopular and even offensive to some members of the community.
  1. Public libraries must uphold the essential value of institutional neutrality, for only in doing so can they create the conditions in which the freedom to read is possible.
  2. There is no justification to exclude certain books, or denigrate those who support them, based on ideological fear or unfounded accusations.
  1. It is part of the library’s responsibility to its public to ensure that its selection of material is not unduly influenced by the personal opinions of the selectors.
  1. The library has a duty to uphold the right of the individual to access information, even though the content may be controversial, unorthodox or unacceptable to others.
  1. The policies of the public library should be strictly adhered to.

One outcome of an investigation by the integrity commissioner would hopefully be a conclusion that it is absolutely essential to have a library board committed to those principles.

Another justification to open an investigation by the integrity commissioner is the fact that this decision by the library board has resulted in a significant waste of taxpayer money to fire a loyal and long-serving senior employee.

By the time that you factor in the severance costs for this wrongful dismissal, the cost of lost benefits, the cost of lost pension benefits, the cost of increasing the library manager’s wage while she is acting CEO, legal fees and HR consulting fees, the library board’s decision could cost the town upward of $250,000 or more.

This represents a significant proportion of the total budget of the public library. This is an outrageous waste of public money of concern to most, if not all, members of this community.

These considerations also inform the criteria in choosing the new member of the library board.

From the overwhelming response to our petition, it seems clear that the board is out of step with this community, which it purports to serve.

Numerous citizen-led initiatives or complaints that, despite evidence of considerably less support than you have before you on this issue, nevertheless led town council either to take an action, refuse a development proposal, or reverse a prior decision of town council.

We ask you to do the right thing and ask for an investigation by the integrity commissioner into the actions of the board and appoint a new library board member who believes in library neutrality and adhering to library policies.

We believe an investigation is necessary to regain the trust of the residents of our community in the manner in which our public library is governed.

Subscribe to our mailing list