Mat-Su creates new challenged-book committee nominated by borough mayor


PALMER — A new citizen committee will take over the review of challenged books in Matanuska-Susitna Borough library collections after the suspension of a prior committee amid chaotic public hearings.

The Borough Assembly voted 5-2 on Tuesday night to create a seven-member committee made up of borough residents nominated by Borough Mayor Edna DeVries and approved by the Assembly. No members of the new committee are required to be librarians or have expertise in literature or books.

The new body replaces the longstanding challenged material review committee that included librarians and members of the borough’s library advisory panel selected by the borough’s recreation manager.

The change affects borough libraries in Big Lake, Talkeetna, Trapper Creek, Willow and Sutton. City-operated libraries in Palmer and Wasilla have their own challenged-book review systems.

There are currently no protested books in borough libraries awaiting review, officials said this week.

The new borough committee and member selection process was proposed by three Assembly members: Dee McKee, whose district includes portions of Wasilla and Palmer; Dmitri Fonov, whose district includes Wasilla; and Robert Bernier, whose district includes Trapper Creek. Other votes in favor also came from Bill Gamble, whose district includes Big Lake, and Robert Yundt, whose district includes Wasilla.

Unlike the previous committee, which conducted book reviews as hearings without public comment and relied on input from librarians, the new committee will be made up of borough residents chosen by the mayor “for their expertise and knowledge of the community,” according to a memo accompanying the proposal.

The committee is designed to give the community control over whether children have access to books some members of the public consider too sexual rather than leave that decision entirely up to librarians who may have had a hand in selecting those books to start with, several Assembly members said Tuesday.

“What I hope it brings is commonsense policies and procedures (and) gets rid of self-policing,” Yundt said.

Voting no were members Stephanie Nowers, whose district includes Palmer, and Tim Hale, whose district includes Butte.

Nowers and Hale both said they do not support the new committee because the member selection process politicizes whether books that some view as problematic should remain on shelves.

“Any committee that is appointed by people at this table is inherently political,” Hale said during the meeting.

The Assembly’s formation of a new committee marks the latest in a series of book policy debates across Mat-Su including Wasilla’s temporary relabeling of the “young adult” section as “adult” and a school district review of dozens of challenged books that’s prompted a lawsuit.

[As efforts to ban books ramp up in Alaska, so do campaigns against censorship]

The new borough book review committee will meet at least quarterly to review challenged materials, allow public comment, and make recommendations through a “scoring card” that Borough Manager Mike Brown said is still under development. The committee’s recommendations will be sent to the community development director for a final decision.

The new borough process comes after Brown indefinitely suspended the previous challenged materials policy when a January book review meeting ended in chaos. Unlike other recent borough meetings on contested books, Tuesday’s meeting remained calm, with little audience clapping and no unruly outbursts over almost two hours of public comment.

Mary Revetta, who regularly testifies about books she considers obscene, on Tuesday said she sees the new citizens’ committee as a win because it gives the community a stronger voice in the reconsideration process.

“I feel like it was a touchdown,” she said. “I am elated that it passed.”

Others worried the new committee will cause violations of personal freedoms because the committee’s reliance on hand-picked community members who are not required to have any library expertise allows a review process that can more easily discriminate against individual titles, they said.

“A library provides free and equal access to informations for everyone,” said Mary Robinson, a Wasilla resident who regularly testifies in support of keeping all current library books on shelves. “It’s your business what book you take out of the library, and why you’re reading it is no one else’s business. It’s as simple as that.”

The borough’s citizen advisory committee is modeled on a similar 11-member Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District committee the school board assembled last year.

That group is tasked with examining 56 challenged books to determine whether volumes qualify as “indecent material” under state law, and whether they should remain on all shelves, be removed entirely, or restricted to secondary schools only.

The school’s committee has made recommendations on 23 books. Based on those recommendations, the school board voted in late February to remove the romance novel “It Ends With Us” by Colleen Hoover from all school libraries. In late March they voted to remove the novels “Verity,” also by Colleen Hoover, and “Call Me By Your Name” by André Aciman.

An ongoing lawsuit filed last year in U.S. District Court in Anchorage by the ACLU of Alaska and the Northern Justice Project on behalf of eight Mat-Su students contends the district violated students’ constitutional rights with the removal of those challenged books from library shelves ahead of the committee’s review.

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason on Monday heard arguments on a motion requiring district officials to return books to library shelves pending a final decision on the suit. Gleason has not yet issued a ruling.

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