Library director resigns amid library dissolution controversy


June 22, 2023

-Chronicle photo by Melissa Gemmell

Jessica Ruffcorn, sponsor of the petition to dissolve the CCRL, opposes sexual content in the children's section of library. Due to a rejected response by Director Vandenbark and board to move specific books out of immediate reach of minors, Ruffcorn has taken a more direct action.

DAYTON–Columbia County Rural Library District (CCRL) Director Todd Vandenbark gave his resignation to the Board of Trustees effective July 14, and the State Attorney General's (AG) office delivered a response to the petition of the library dissolution.

Vandenbark took the position of the CCRL Director in February, 2021. Beginning in August of last year (2022), the library has been facing a series of book challenges which has drawn regular public input both for and against books mostly containing sexually explicit content. Vandenbark has stood firm in not moving these books away from the children's section with the broad support of the Board which has led to a formal petition to dissolve the Library District.

In addition, at the time of Vandenbark's decision to resign, an informal opinion was received from the AG's office in response to questions about the statutes on the petition process for dissolution posed by County Prosecutor Dale Slack. He specifically questioned about the annexation of the City into the County Library District and how the statute referring to dissolution only specifies required signatures from County residents outside of incorporated cities and town. He also asked whether it is constitutional to not include city residents in the vote after having been annexed into the County Rural Library District.

Assistant Attorney General Kelly Owings provided the response and affirmed that RCW 27.12.320 plainly states the signatures required are 10% of registered voters residing outside of incorporated cities and towns. She did not provide a direct response to the question about whether the law as written is unconstitutional. However, she said the office of the AG would stand behind the statutes as constitutional.

Owings stated the city voted to be annexed to receive library services and with it assumed the responsibility of paying a portion of the tax levy. She pointed out that the law allows City residents to vote to withdraw from the district as well as vote to establish their own library. However, county residents cannot withdraw, only dissolve. She claimed the statutes are written to allow for intergovernmental cooperation for mutual benefit of its constituents.

Slack explained the statutes for the annexation of cities and towns were added later, but no consideration was given by lawmakers to alter the statutes to include registered voters in towns and cities when voting to dissolve it. He expressed conviction that if the measure is approved for the ballot, someone would challenge it and file an injunction with the County Superior Court requesting it be removed from the ballot. The Court would have until near election time to decide whether it would remain on the ballot, but Slack thought that either way it would likely be appealed in the Court of Appeals. If it is then ruled as unconstitutional then legislators would be compelled to review and revise the statute, said Slack.

Jessica Ruffcorn, who is leading the petition, plans to move forward with it in confidence that she has the required signatures. However, first she has decided to reach out to the Library Board Trustees to request a mediation with two members of the Board and a few from each side of the issue from the community to discuss a resolution.

Previously, Vandenbark had reportedly refused a meeting, unwilling to compromise on intellectual freedom. Representing fellow petitioners, Ruffcorn requested the Board review the collection and reconsideration of materials policies, as well as a review of staff and the budget for the purpose of reducing the budget by half.

In addition, she asked for the books containing sexually explicit material to be housed upstairs away from the children's section downstairs. If the board choses to meet or compromise this request, theremay be no need to advance the petition to the County Auditor on August 1.

According to Slack, once submitted, the auditor will verify the signatures and the petition will go to the Library Board to advertise and hold a public hearing before passing a resolution that the matter of dissolving the Library District will be placed on the November ballot. When asked whether they can vote against it being on the ballot, Slack said the law requires them to pass it.

If the measure succeeds, all materials will go to the State and the building would go back to the city and in his opinion, this is not a "suitable recourse" for city residents who would have no say.

The next Library Board meeting is June 26 at 7 p.m. which is delayed one week due to Juneteenth.


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