Friday, July 07, 2023

Oconee Library Board To Decide On Citizen Complaint From March, Discuss Issues From June Program At Monday Meeting

***Town Hall Meeting Exchange Plays Role***

The Oconee County Library Board of Trustees, in its meeting on Monday, is scheduled to respond to a citizen request from March that the Oconee County Library reclassify or relabel a book because of its discussion of sex and use of language.

Board Chair Mark Campbell also anticipates that the Board will discuss possible responses to a controversy regarding programming at the Watkinsville Library in June that included a reading from the children’s series Little People, Big Dreams about RuPaul.

Campbell said he expects that a suggestion by Oconee County Board of Commission Chair John Daniell that the Library Board receive advance notice of programming at the library will be part of that discussion.

Daniell said at last month’s Town Hall Meeting, in response to a question, that he had been in discussion with Campbell about changes in how the Library Board deals with programming at the county’s two libraries, one in Watkinsville and the other in Bogart.

Pam Hendrix told Daniell and four other Board of Commissioners members at the Town Hall Meeting that she considered the book about RuPaul, a drag queen who produces, hosts and judges a reality television series, to be “age inappropriate.”

Hendrix’s question was the 10th of 19 asked by Hendrix and three other people who came to the microphone at the June Town Hall Meeting at the Civic Center.

A fifth citizen also spoke, but she only thanked the Board for its support of the Oconee Parks Foundation.

Other questions dealt with the Julian Drive intersection with SR 316, the traffic light at Union Church Road, the status of construction on Experiment Station Road, the January legislative session in Atlanta, property tax exemptions, and other topics.

Hendix Questions

Hendrix’s first question of the Board had to do with the new county Administrative Building nearing completion at the intersection of North Main Street (SR 15) and the U.S. 441 Bypass north of Watkinsville.

Screen Shot Town Hall Meeting 6/15/22
Daniell With Microphone

She said the building was a “big, fancy government” building and "I was just wondering how much is that costing us, the taxpayers?”

Commission Chair Daniell said the 44,000 square foot building is under budget and will cost $14.8 million and will accommodate all county administrative offices as well as the Tax Commissioner and the county Environmental Health Department.

“I don't know if I agree with your ‘fancy’ word,” Daniell said. “But it's a nice building. It's a practical building. It was very well done through the architecture and the people building it, so it'll be something Oconee County County can be proud of.”

When she returned to the microphone seven questions and seven minutes later, Hendrix said “I don't know if y'all have heard, but there's some controversy this summer about our Oconee County Library and the children's summer reading program.”

“I was living in Morgan County when my children were young,” she continued, “but that was just one of the greatest programs.”

“I did it with my children from probably about age three to seven or eight or nine and they kind of thought they were too old for it. But it was a great program.”

Summer Program

“Well this summer, our local library, because it's falling in June, which is the Pride Month, all their, or many of their, read books–books they're reading--these young children,” Hendrix said. “I mean I'm talking babies to nine or 10, are all related to Pride Month.”

“And I just think that's age inappropriate,” Hendrix said. “I just think we are destroying the innocence of our children.”

“And I want to know if y'all are aware of that?” Hendrix asked. “I've seen several letters that I think you've gotten about it. And I want to know how much is the county, how much are we funding the library?”

“And is there anything that--are y'all going to get involved in that?” she asked.

“I have talked to the library director,” Hendrix continued. “I think his name is James Mitchum. He promises me that this will be different next year.”

“But anyway it's a interesting thing that's just popped up this year,” Hendrix said.

“Can you speak to that?” she asked.

The Oconee County Library Branch Manager is James Mitchell.

The June 16 children’s program included a reading of Volume 61 in the highly acclaimed series, Little People, Big Dreams, and is about RuPaul. Other volumes in the series focus on, among many others, Mozart, Princess Diana, Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King Jr., and Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

Daniell’s Response

Daniell told Hendrix “So we provide over $600,000 (annually) in funding to the libraries. That includes Watkinsville and Bogart.”

“We are not involved in the day-to-day operations,” he continued. “We have received those--some of the communications you're talking about. We are aware of the controversy that's popped up and it's very unfortunate that that's the position that we're in.”

“We have no mechanism of stopping a program or making a program from the Board commissioner's seat,” he said.

“I have had a lot of conversations with the chairman of the Library Board,” Daniell said. “He's keenly aware of what's going on as well.”

“I think part of the problem is the programming is decided at the library branch level,” Daniell said. “So like Bogart's not doing this. Watkinsville is.”

“There's, I think, four or five others in the regional system that are doing something similar that's created similar controversies for their locations,” Daniell said.

“So the Library Board is not actually approving what's happening there,” Daniell said. “And I don't believe that senior management of the regional system is either.”

Daniell’s Proposal

“So some of the things that we've talked about with the Library Board chairman is going to a program where they review the programming for that particular library,” Daniell said.

“And they will approve that in their quarterly meetings, or advise on it, whatever their role is,” he said.

“So we think we have a good path forward to try to help everybody understand what the values are in Oconee County,” Daniell said. “And really we just don't want the library to be a point of controversy.”

“It's always been an organization where the entire community was behind them,” he said. “We were able to fund them, help with SPLOST. And these kind of controversies are not good for them.”

The county has included library capital funding in recent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax referendums, allowing the county to match state funds for both the renovated Bogart Library and the new Watkinsville Library at Wire Park now under construction.

I have transcribed and included above the entire exchange between Hendrix and Daniell at the June Town Hall Meeting. It was the only time the libraries came up in the meeting.

I did not attend the June 16 reading of the Little People, Big Dreams volume on RuPaul.

According to the front-page story in the June 22 edition of The Oconee Enterprise, a reporter for the paper did attend. While parents and children were present, the paper reported, “There were no disruptions.”

Monday’s Library Board Agenda

The agenda for the 4:30 p.m. meeting of the Oconee County Library Board of Trustees lists, under Old Business, a Request for Reconsideration of Material. That meeting will take place at the Oconee County Library on Experiment Station in Watkinsville.

Screen Shot Library Board Meeting 4/10/2023
Campbell In Center

On March 18, Suzannah Heimel filled out a form called Request for Reconsideration of Library Resource or Service at the library in Watkinsville.

She said she did an “online search for gender, queer, lesbian, in our local library, not Pines, in general” and identified a book titled Flamer by Mike Curato, a graphic novel.

Heimel said she had “read, viewed” the book and listed 22 pages that “concerned” her.

“Discussion about sex, lewd language,” she wrote. “Not appropriate for 6-12 graders.”

Heimel asked the library to “reclassify (the book) for adults or paste warning labels on cover (re. Sexual content, cursing, etc.).”

Review Procedures

The Athens Regional Library System (ARLS) has a detailed procedure for responding to a Request for Reconsideration of Materials/Service. A Service includes a library program.

A Master of Library and Information Sciences degree-holding selector or Collection Development Librarian assumes the lead in the review process, creating a packet of materials for the Book Action Committee of the local Library Board of Trustees.

Included in that packet is a copy of professional reviews, a written assessment by the leader and a committee of the leader, a statement of the Library Bill of Rights and a copy of the American Library Association Free to Read (or view) Statement.

Oconee County Branch Manager Mitchell sent the Oconee County Board of Trustees Book Action Committee a memo on March 31 stating that “it is the recommendation of the ARLS Collection Management Team that the title be retained as currently classified in the Young Adult Fiction section of the library’s collection.”

“Curato wrote Flamer for ages 14 and up, and the book was marketed and sold as a young adult title by an established publisher, Henry Holt Books for Young Readers,” the memo states.

ARLS has six copies of the book, and, as of March 31, 2023, the book had circulated 50 times in the ARLS “and 12 times at the Oconee County Library,” according to the report.

“The book has received starred reviews (which are the highest rated reviews in the publication) from School Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus and The Horn Book,” the ARLS review team wrote.

The book has won many awards, including being listed as a Best Graphic Novel by the School Library Journal, according to the report.

Monday Decision

Campbell told me in a telephone interview on Thursday that the Book Action Committee of the Oconee County Library Board of Trustees has met but he is not sure if its report has been sent to the Board.

Campbell said he is on that Committee, and he said that the recommendation of the Committee to the full Board of Trustees is that Flamer be relocated to the adult section of the Oconee County Library.

Campbell said that he expected the Board will discuss the June program at the Watkinsville Library in the New Business section of the meeting.

Campbell said the Library Board does not have procedures in place to review either services (including programs) or library materials in advance.

The Board had not been informed about the June program, Campbell said, and the first he heard of it was “late in May after there was reactions to the advertisements that were on the calendar, some of the web sites for the library itself.”

Campbell acknowledged his discussions with Daniell and said that he expected that the proposal Daniell made in response to the question at the Town Hall Meeting by Hendrix will be discussed on Monday.

Town Hall Questions

Jeff Hood came to the microphone to ask the first two questions at the June 15 Town Hall and returned four additional times with questions.

Screen Shot Town Hall Meeting 6/15/2023
Hood With Back To Camera

The first question was really a statement.

Hood said he understood that the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) had not yet decided what kind of intersection it will build for Julian Drive and SR 316.

Hood said he knew that the Oconee County commissioners would not make the decision, but he had talked to his neighbors in Deerbrook and all were opposed to closing the intersection entirely.

“I want to go on record saying, I'm a fiscal conservative, so it probably does not make sense to put a multi-million dollar bridge up,” Hood said, “but at a minimum we would like to keep the right-in, right-out if possible.”

Hood next asked if the opening of Costco had increased county sales tax revenue.

“Definitely our sales tax numbers are up since Costco is open,” Daniell said, but “I don't know how much of all that is applied to them.”

Changes that the legislature made on other taxes also are playing a role, he added.

More From Hood

Hood subsequently asked Daniell to explain how the sales tax relief promised by Gov. Brian Kemp and General Assembly will be implemented.

“You'll get an $18,000 homestead exemption from the governor and General Assembly this year,” Daniell said, “So you'll have a separate line item below our $2,000, one that says from the governor and General Assembly.”

Daniell said it probably would be a saving of $300 to $350.

Hood next asked about the status of the traffic light at Union Church Road and where the county would build its next roundabout.

Daniell said the county is waiting on delivery of equipment for the light and that the next roundabout the county will build is Snows Mill Road and Lane Creek Road.

Hood also wanted to know about the timetable for the widening of U.S. 441.

“They're working on right of way now,” Daniell said of the Georgia Department of Transportation. “They've placed a lot of stakes along 441. They're in negotiations for property along that pathway so that widening will occur from the bridge at the Morgan County line to Astondale Road, and that's where it'll stop.”

Daniell said the hope is that construction, or at least the awarding of a construction bid, will be in 2025.

Hendrix On Roads

Hendrix followed the question by Hood about U.S. 441 construction with one of her own.

Screen Shot Town Hall Meeting 6/15/2023
Hendrix With Back To Camera

“That makes me think of something else,” Hendrix said as she came to the microphone again. “I'm currently the regent of the Reverend John Andrew chapter of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution and we are very concerned.”

“Our patriot is buried out there on 441 right at the Michael Farm and those stakes look like they're taking out his grave site, and that's very concerning to our chapter,” she said.

“The plans I've seen show no grave relocations,” Daniell said. “So those stakes don't necessarily mean the road is going to that point. “It doesn't even mean that's part of the right of way.”

“It may be a construction easement where they have to get on that person's property to do something,” he continued. “It may be a driveway easement that's needed.”

Later Hendrix asked about the status of the Bishop Farms Parkway extension from the University of North Georgia campus to the Parkway stub from New High Shoals Road.

Daniell said when the county sought bids for the construction, the county had $1.5 million set aside for the work, and the Georgia Department of Transportation was going to add $600,000.

“When the bids came in,” Daniell said. ‘It was like $3.5 million, so we put that one on the shelf.”

More On Construction

Rick Garrett asked three separate questions on construction.

He asked if there is a set of plans for the roadway on SR 316 “you can go and look at” that tell what GDOT plans to do.

Daniell directed him to the Transforming 316 website of GDOT.

He asked for an update on the roundabout planned for SR 53 (Hog Mountain Road) at Ray’s Church Road and Malcom Bridge Road.

“We're getting closer,” Daniell said. “They’re waiting for final approval on the right-of-way plans.”

“It could be as long as two years before construction starts,” he said.

Garrett also asked about an update on the widening of Experiment Station Road from Butler's Crossing to the Watkinsville U.S 441 bypass.

“The big slowdown was getting pipes for relocation of the water line,” Daniel said. “That put us like three months behind. I don't know what the latest delay is.”

Questions On Homestead

Alan Langston expressed concern about property assessments and taxes.

“In other counties, when you get 65, they drop the educational portion (of the property tax), which would be a huge help,” he said.

Daniell, at the beginning of the meeting, had talked about the 10 questions that will be on the ballot next year changing the way the county grants homestead exemptions.

“If you're 65 or older now,” Daniell said, “you can go to the Tax Commissioner and have your property values frozen. So that means whatever your value is when you freeze it, that will remain it as long as you're qualified.”

“We did that,” Langston said. “Unfortunately we didn't know about it until this year.”

“That's one reason we're trying to make the change that we're making,” Daniell said. “We're trying to make that automatic so the Tax Commissioner now has the ability to track your birthday.”

“She's collecting that information, so automatically when you or your spouse turns 65, you'll get that freeze,” Daniell said.

“In addition, you'll get an increase in your homestead exemption from $2,000 all the way up to $5,000,” Daniell said. “And then when you hit 75, automatically that will increase by $10,000 on top of the $5,000 that we are going to. So that will be a substantial relief.”

Hood On General Assembly

Hood, in one of his visits to the microphone, said “next year's General Assembly is about six and a half months away. I'm just curious if any of you gentlemen had much dialogue lately with (Rep.) Houston (Gaines), (Rep.) Marcus (Wiedower), or Sen. Bill Cowsert about what may be brewing in next year's General Assembly?”

Screen Shot Town Hall Meeting 6/15/2023
Daniell Discusses County Budget

“So we do all talk throughout the year--even when the legislature is not in session-- and a lot of times they're just as surprised as we are at some of the stuff that pops up,” Daniell said.

“Really our number one hope,” Daniell said, “is they just don't pass anything that's going to interfere with our strategic planning and comprehensive plan.”

“Most conversations are about stopping something that's coming through more than trying to get something done,” Daniell said.

Announcements By Daniell

Daniell began and ended the meeting with a number of announcements.

The county will hold a ribbon cutting at 4:30 p.m. on July 25 before the agenda-setting meeting of the Board of Commissioners at the new administrative building, Daniell said.

Voters will decide if they want to approve the changes in the Homestead Exemption in the county in a referendum next year, he said.

“There will be 10 ballot questions,” Daniell said, “and all 10 ballot questions must pass.”

In a review of the budget, Daniell said the county would be dropping the millage rate by 1 mill.

He also said that the $202,000 remaining in the SPLOST from 2015 for Historical and Scenic Facilities will be used for maintenance of the Eagle Tavern and the William Daniell House on Founders Boulevard off Daniells Bridge Road.

The Welcome Center will be moving to the Daniell House, Daniell said.

The broadband project is underway,” Daniell said. “We're getting a lot of good good feedback from that. We're already they're already hooking customers up.”

Jeanne Barsanti, a member of the Board of Director of the Oconee Parks Foundation, was the last citizen to come to the microphone.

“After the last Town Hall in June,” she said, addressing the Board, “several of you gave donations. And that meant a lot to the Board. So thank you very much.”


The video below is on the Oconee County YouTube Channel.

Hood asked his first question at 19:12 in the video.

Hendrix asked about the costs of the administrative building at 22:09 in the video.

Langston asked about homestead exemptions at 23:55 in the video.

Hendrix asked about the library at 30:48 in the video.

Garrett asked his construction questions at 37:26 in the video.

Hood asked about the General Assembly at 41:22 in the video.

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