Lafayette Public Library Board Declines Grant for Voting Rights Discussion, Community Speaks Out in Aftermath

A vote by the Lafayette Public Library, LA, Board of Control to reject a grant for a discussion on voting rights, which resulted in former director Teresa Elberson abruptly opting to retire, has highlighted longstanding issues between the board and library administration, and fears for the library’s future.

exterior of Lafayette Public Library, main branchA vote by the Lafayette Public Library (LPL), LA, Board of Control to reject a grant for a discussion on voting rights, which resulted in former director Teresa Elberson abruptly opting to retire, has highlighted longstanding issues between the board and library administration, and fears for the library’s future.

At a January 25 meeting, the board voted to reject a $2,700 grant from the Louisiana Endowment of the Humanities (LEH) as part of its “Who Gets to Vote?” reading and discussion program. The funding would have gone toward purchase of 20 to 30 copies each of two books on the history of voting rights—Bending Toward Justice by Gary May and Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All by Martha S. Jones—and provided stipends for two facilitators to moderate four sessions of virtual discussion: Theodore Foster, assistant professor of African American history at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (ULL), and Chris Edelson, assistant professor of government at American University, Washington, DC.

The board cited Elberson’s lack of compliance with a directive, issued at the December 2020 board meeting, to provide conservative moderators for the discussion to counterbalance the “extremely far left” leanings of Foster and Edelson. Elberson stated that the moderators were chosen and notified before the board’s comments in December.

Elberson, who worked for LPL for more than 38 years and served as director since 2016, announced her retirement on January 29. On February 3, the board appointed Operations Manager Larry Angelle to take over as provisional interim director, and on February 22 appointed Danny Gillane, a 13-year member of the LPL support staff, as interim library director. Gillane declined to comment on the record for this article.

ULL secured the grant that the LPL board turned down. The program will run over four weeks, beginning on March 10, and will be accessible via Zoom. While it is open to the public, participation is limited. Spots will be assigned on a first-come, first-served basis, with a waiting list, and for those who can’t get in, a simulcast will air on the ULL Dupré Library’s YouTube channel and Acadiana Open Channel.

 

SUGGESTION OR ORDER?

Elberson first heard of the grant—part of the “Why it Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation” initiative administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation—in November 2020, after that month’s board meeting.

The proposed programming, according to LEH, “will feature two keynote programs and a four-part reading and discussion series incorporating books that explore the expansion of voting rights since the country’s founding, the women’s suffrage movement, historic and contemporary voter suppression practices, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (and the 2013 Supreme Court decision that invalidated key portions of it), and the disenfranchisement of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated Americans.” Libraries and community partners were invited to submit letters of interest.

Elberson passed the application on to her programming staff, who customarily choose speakers and books, and they picked the titles from LEH’s list and secured the moderators. The board, Elberson explained, typically does not get involved with grant applications, although she went through the customary process of having the application approved by the Lafayette Parish Council.

The grant money needed to be accepted by the end of 2020. At the December board meeting, Elberson said, “One of the board members expressed concern over our choice of [facilitators], and in a private conversation I had earlier with the board president, he had also expressed that he had concerns about the subject.”

The board’s statement, issued the following week, noted that the topics—particularly voter ID laws, voting rights of felons, and the electoral college—were potentially controversial. “The Board re-emphasized its goal to ensure that the Library, as a government agency, should remain a politically neutral, or apolitical, entity,” the statement read. “The Board requested that the Director comply with that goal by securing one speaker from each side of the aisle to fairly represent opposing positions on the current controversial voting issues in the program.”

A clarifying statement issued by the board on February 23 added, “This board believes that if a government entity, like the library, is going to promote a program that claims to educate and inform our residents on current political issues, then it is only fair to everyone that such a program should allow for all sides to be heard on those current issues. This is all that we asked our director to do in our December meeting, and she agreed to do it.”

Board President Doug Palombo told LJ that when the board told Elberson to find a facilitator with a conservative viewpoint, the board had no intent of disputing the history of voting disenfranchisement, but rather looking at both sides of current issues—and that some board members, after examining Foster’s and Edelson’s social media feeds, felt that “they were clearly not ideal candidates to be unbiased moderators.”

“We just felt like we need to look like we're giving equal time to both sides of these political issues,” Palombo added. “That's the only reason we got involved with that directive.”

Elberson misinterpreted the board’s instructions as a suggestion rather than an order, she told LJ. She asked her staff to let the facilitators know that the board had stated concerns, and both responded that they were participating to help moderate the conversations, not control their direction or content. “I thought that might comply with the [board’s] request,” she said. “It was my hope that it would reassure them that this wasn't a one-sided thing.”

At its January meeting the board voted 5–2 to decline the grant money, on the basis that Elberson had not satisfied its directive.

“I thought it was an act of censorship, and they violated their own policy,” Elberson told LJ. LPL’s programming policy, approved by the board in July 2019, states, “The ultimate responsibility for programming at the Library rests with the Library Director, who administers under the authority of the Library Board of Control. The Library Director delegates the authority for program management to the Head of Programming, who works with librarians and staff members whose job responsibilities involve program development and delivery.”

 

BOARD CONFLICTS

This was not Elberson’s first clash with the board. In 2018, she had proposed that LPL host Drag Queen Story Time, which met with opposition from then-Lafayette Mayor-President Joel Robideaux and prompted a civil lawsuit that was ultimately dismissed. A small version of the event took place in early 2019 as a group of objectors protested outside, with no further incident, but a sense of mistrust of the library lingered in Lafayette, according to several sources LJ spoke with who declined to be named.

“We have Mardi Gras here, and one of the biggest balls—where they fight over tickets—is the Apollo Ball, which is a drag queen show,” Elberson noted. “I thought I lived in a—not liberal, but understanding—community. And I was blown away that there was so much hatred in this community.”

Despite some conflicts, Elberson felt that she and the board worked well together—“Dialogue is always good, and difference of opinion is not a bad thing”—until recently, when a number of the board seats turned over. At least one of the new members, Stephanie Armbruster, was an outspoken opponent of Drag Queen Story Time in 2018. Elberson feels that the board, six of whom are appointed by the Parish Council and the seventh by the mayor-president—lost its “continuity…. Instead of taking time to understand the library, they just jumped right in, and I don't always think that's a good idea.”

The board had also recently opposed other plans of Elberson’s; her proposal to grant automatic borrowing privileges to all ULL students was tabled, and permission for a software purchase she had made was rescinded, Elberson told LJ. She had been thinking about retirement, she said, and after the January meeting she decided it was time to leave.

 

ECONOMIC INCENTIVES

The library has also suffered financial setbacks in the past few years. In 2018 voters rejected a request to renew one of three property taxes that fund the library system, reducing its revenue by some $3 million a year—a defeat former board president Andrew Duhon attributes to a Vote No campaign run by Citizens for a New Louisiana, a local conservative anti-tax organization, and its executive director, Michael Lunsford. “His allegations were that the library system had an embarrassment of riches, this big fund, and they don't need the millage,” Duhon recalled. He noted that because of anti-tax sentiments Lafayette public utilities are largely underfunded, and that “the best example of good fiscal management in the parish family of funds is the library.”

In September 2019, the former City-Parish Council (it has since split into two separate councils) declined to roll forward one of the two remaining property taxes, cutting annual library revenue by another $300,000. A month later, residents voted to transfer $8 million of the library’s general fund to Lafayette’s Public Works Department to fund drainage and road repairs, with Robideaux’s support. In 2020, the Parish Council declined to increase library property tax millages to generate funds to match the previous year, reducing library funding by another $750,000.

These cuts have forced LPPLS to dip into its $7 million in savings. With the final property tax up for renewal in 2021, board members expressed concern that because of incidents such as the Drag Queen Story Hour dispute, the library may be perceived as too liberal by Lafayette’s majority-Republican voters when they go to the polls.

“We're in a position right now where we're pulling from our reserve funds to meet our budget every year,” Palombo told LJ. “We think a big part of the reason that the voters went out and did not approve that millage in 2018 was the sense that the library was becoming too political. Whether you think they were or not, they were perceived that way. So with the board we have now, we're just trying to pull it back to center as far as the perception goes, trying to win back the approval of the conservatives that did not approve the library's millage.”

“I love the library. Everybody that's on this board loves the library and wants to see it not just survive but thrive. But unfortunately, fiscally we're in a position where we have to make some tough choices, and we have to make sure we have the favor of the voters,” said Palombo.

“We’re trying to tiptoe through this minefield,” he continued. “We're trying to win back the favor of the conservatives who were not happy with a lot of things at the library, and at the same time we're just trying to save the library.”

 

DENYING FUNDAMENTAL ACCESS

Reactions to the board’s decision to decline the grant were widespread.

A release from local activist group Stand Black and the NAACP stated that the groups are "deeply disturbed" by the board’s decision. “Louisiana has a repugnant history of manipulating the truth of racism and bigotry,” said Jamal Taylor, cofounder of Stand Black and Louisiana NAACP Chair of the Education Committee. “It is time that we now move henceforth to tackle these issues head-on. We will not continue to sit silently while a small contingent of racists and bigots perpetuate conspiracy theories.”

The League of Women Voters of Lafayette wrote in a press release that “a reading and discussion of the struggle for Americans to access the ballot is not a debate but an important history lesson for us all. We hope that the Lafayette Parish Council will address our questions regarding the role and authority of the Library Board of Control to determine programming for the Lafayette Public Library System.”

ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Alanah Odoms issued a statement as well. “We are incredibly disappointed in the board's decision,” she told LJ. “The ACLU takes issue with this primarily because libraries are essentially the bastion of free exchange of information, and are the heartbeat of the community's opportunity to have access to historical information as well as a diverse and varied set of perspectives on ideas. That's fundamental.”

ULL issued a statement as well, which read, in part, “In rejecting the grant, a board member questioned the objectivity of a member of our faculty, Dr. Theodore Foster, an assistant professor of history who was to act as one of two facilitators for the book discussion. Dr. Foster is a dynamic and thoughtful scholar of Black life, culture and politics in our nation. That he is qualified to facilitate this discussion and provide context to it is without question. The University, its students and our wider community are fortunate to have him here.”

On February 2, the American Library Association and United for Libraries sent a letter to the board urging them to reconsider their vote. It read, in part, “We believe that the program proposed by your former director, Theresa Elberson, would have helped to encourage greater participation in our democratic processes by highlighting the major milestones in the history of voting rights. We strongly encourage you to work with the members of the Lafayette community who have expressed concern about your decision and to reconsider your vote to refuse the grant and cancel the program. In particular, we encourage continued community conversation with the Louisiana NAACP, Stand Black, and the Lafayette League of Women Voters.”

Duhon expressed concern that the Parish Council, which oversees library millage changes and appoints board members, has deliberately built a conservative-majority board rather than seeking out strong leadership for the library. “I think they see it as ‘stop drag queen type [programming].’ We've never had any other attempts to resuscitate that program, bring it back, we had no intentions of doing it,” he told LJ. “Nevertheless, it was kind of like ‘We'll show you,’ and they started stacking the board with conservative-thinking people.”

He believes the new board members blame Elberson for the Drag Queen Story Time conflict and were impatient for her to retire. Asking her to find an opposing viewpoint for another moderator, said Duhon, “put her in an untenable position.”

“I take issue with the fundamental premise of an opposing perspective, or a contrasting perspective, or an alternative narrative,” said Odoms. “Neutrality is really one of these tricky concepts where in an attempt to be 'apolitical' or neutral, people end up being terribly partial, discriminatory, and biased.”

“The other side of the story is Jim Crow laws and the KKK,” said State Senator Gerald Boudreaux, who also expressed his disappointment in the board’s decision to KATC. “You can't run and hide from that.”

At the special board meeting on February 3, Joan Wingate—one of the two board members who had voted to accept the grant—said, “I thought she honored the spirit of the request by reaching out to the presenters, and basically it smacks of retaliation on her by negating the grant because you were disappointed in how she handled it.”

After declining the grant, Palombo reached out to Foster, inviting him to take part in a debate at the library with someone holding opposing views; Foster turned the offer down, telling local ABC affiliate KATC that “in many ways that feels inappropriate.” Instead, local businessman Cory Levier will present a series of town hall meetings at the library on the history of African American voting rights in America.

“This is a very small grant, mind you. It's a grant that's supposed to fund education about voting rights,” said Odoms. “If we can't use less than $3,000 during Black History Month to focus on the struggle for voting rights in this country for African American people, I think it's a sad day.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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