The new members of the Calloway County Public Library Board say a re-evaluation of a recently-approved library expansion is among their top priorities.
The board met for the first time in a special-called meeting Wednesday afternoon after being appointed by Calloway County Judge-Executive Larry Elkins following approval from the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives and the local Fiscal Court. The new members are Joe Walker, Mark Kennedy and Winfield Rose. Audrey Neal and Riley Ramsey remain on the board.
Three members of the previous board suddenly and nearly simultaneously resigned in April following a vote approving a $6.4 million expansion. The expansion project, long-sought-after by some local residents who say the library does not adequately meet the needs of the community, has been fiercely opposed by Elkins, who has blasted the cost and its potential tax burden and has accused the library of frivolous spending.
The Wednesday meeting was brief, mostly silent and awkward as the only agenda item was the election of officers. About a dozen people attended and one asked if the new members would offer 'friendly introductions.' Library officials said the meeting was limited to the agenda and suggested formal introductions at the regular meeting on June 13.
The board is now comprised of President Audrey Neal, Secretary Mark Kennedy, Treasurer Winfield Rose, Joe Walker and Riley Ramsey (who previously served as Acting President and Secretary and was absent from the meeting).
Describing the process involving the selection of the new board members, Neal told WKMS News typically the board would put a call out for interested applicants and then would choose two names to fill each position. She said with the sudden resignations, the board was unable to meet, so Elkins stepped in and made the appointments. KDLA Commissioner Terry Manuel said he had asked Elkins to come up with viable candidates and to present him with names. Manuel said Elkins presented him at least two names for each position and said the individuals ultimately selected met their criteria. Those names were then sent back for approval from the fiscal court.
As for being elected President, Neal told WKMS News she is excited to hold the position and to be an advocate for the library, which she said has been instrumental in her life. She described herself as an active and frequent user. She said she's hopeful that the new board will offer a chance for a fresh start and hopes the board will act with the interests of the library and community in mind. She says she is open to the idea of adding educational items to board agendas to help inform the board and public about the inner workings of the library. She said she holds the Rowan County Public Library in Morehead as an example of a model library in a Kentucky community of similar size and composition to Murray.
Suggesting the board may face disagreements over the controversial expansion, she said it's okay if the board disagrees on issues so long as facts support the arguments. Defending the previous board's actions, she said at no point in her experience were decisions made that were designed to hide information or the process involving the expansion.
Before and after the meeting, WKMS News asked the new board members about their priorities.
Joe Walker said he wants to see the library board operate "more like a business" and focus less on 'brick and mortar' aspects such as the expansion. He said the $6.4 million proposal was not justified. He said he wants library operations to reflect the needs of the community. When asked if the community says they want a larger library as a matter of meeting need, Walker said he was not opposed to the idea of an expansion but questioned if it needs to be as expensive as had been proposed. He suggested rather than expanding the building, to instead modernize the equipment and services within. He also said Murray State University has a "fantastic" historical library in Pogue and feels Waterfield is underused.
Winfield Rose said he wants to take time to familiarize himself with library details. He said he's interested in "moving forward" with the library expansion issue - to determine whether it's a good idea as previously envisioned or if it needed to be amended, modified or nullified. He said he does not want an expansion to be a taxpayer burden and suggested decisions be made in the context of external factors such as the imposition of new state taxes beginning July 1. Rose declined to comment on any other visions or plans for the library.
Mark Kennedy said his first priority is reading through the library's financial reports. When dealing with taxpayer money, he said, he wants to be prudent and a good steward. He said the library needs more parking and wondered if any future expansion would be a vertical effort rather than widening the building. A library expansion should not incur debt, he said, but "if we need it, we need it." He wants to see particulars of what has been proposed before committing to anything. Regarding financials, he questioned if the library wants to have book clubs whether they should pay for all of the books. Kennedy also suggested expanding the Town and Gown partnership (a collaboration between the City of Murray and Murray State University) to include more community access to university materials such as the campus libraries and other campus spaces for events.
Director Mignon Pittman said in an email to WKMS the library supplies books for the book clubs. She said participants check out the books to read for the discussion. Once the books are returned, the library makes a kit that is shared with other libraries in the state. Those kits are then checked out to other libraries and other book clubs in Murray and the surrounding community. "They benefit our community and other libraries in the area and across the state," she said.
Audrey Neal said she believes the collections at the university libraries and the public library are different, as the university would likely not place as much an emphasis on modern fiction, large print or children's materials. "I don't see it's possible or meets the needs of the public," she said.
Murray State University Director of Communications Shawn Touney said in a follow-up email that community members do not have access to laptops or PC's and cannot reserve classroom space for meetings or request Interlibrary Loan resources. They do, however, have access to the library's electronic resources if they bring their own device or use guest Wi-Fi and ask for a temporary proxy log-in at the Information Desk. Limited community parking is available behind Waterfield and across from Pogue. Here is more information and guidelines for complimentary user cards for community members.
This story has been updated to include Murray State's response.