The Douglas County Library’s website is at the center of a firestorm of controversy over information it posted — and later scrubbed — that appeared to favor a proposed library district that’s on the ballot this November.
After receiving a complaint from an opponent of the library district, library officials took the information off the library’s website last week. But that decision has also generated controversy. Library district supporters now say the county erred in removing the information, which they say was impartial, and they’ve started an online petition to pepper Douglas County commissioners with emails asking the information be put back on the website. Commissioner Chris Boice said he had about 200 of these emails in his inbox as of Thursday afternoon. He said the website had links to pro-district information, but those links have been removed.
At issue is Measure 10-145, which asks voters to approve a new library district, with a separate board of directors and a tax of 44 cents per $1,000 in property value. The county can’t legally take sides on an election issue on its website, which is paid for by taxpayer dollars.
Gerald Gindlesperger of Umpqua is the man who called the problem to the county’s attention. He told The News-Review that he found links to pro-district websites on the library’s webpage. He also said he tried three times to post a letter to the library’s Facebook page explaining his opposition to Measure 10-145. Each time, he said, his letter was removed, while comments favorable to a library district were allowed to remain.
“They’re not allowed to have anything on that website that has to do with this taxing district at all that is pro or con,” he said.
The Oregon Library Association sent a letter Tuesday to the Douglas County commissioners, arguing the county had every right to distribute information it said was impartial about the district measure. Because that information has been removed, the county is suppressing voter information, and that’s “tantamount to censorship,” the library association said.
Deborah Millsap, president of the Douglas County Library Foundation, said Thursday the county’s library website is a natural place for people to go to get information about the district measure.
“I think it was a form of suppression if people were just seeking information,” she said.
Robert Heilman of the Save our Libraries Political Action Committee said in an interview Wednesday he’s amazed the county took the information down.
“I think it’s very ironic that this should occur as libraries across the nation are celebrating Banned Books Week, an anti-censorship celebration,” he said.
Commissioner Boice said he received Gindlesperger’s complaint last Friday. After investigating, he said, he found the site did have links to pro-library district information. In particular, he found it linked to newspaper editorials and letters that favored the district. He also noted that links were not included to letters opposing the district.
He said he had county I-T staff temporarily suspend the website, and asked the library’s I-T employee to remove the links. He said he does not have a problem with the library posting impartial information about the district measure.
Boice said the county should not be promoting for or against the district, but that problem has been corrected.
“We’re not suppressing information, and we’re not lobbying for or against the district. We’ve committed to not do that,” Boice said.
He also said the county investigated Gindlesperger’s complaint about Facebook comments being removed. He said the county looked through its Facebook records and found no evidence that had happened.
“We have not been able to substantiate that claim,” Boice said.
Boice said he has since come to the conclusion that Gindlesperger’s efforts to post on Facebook were made on the Inform Me Douglas County page. That group is not affiliated with the Douglas County government.
Gindlesperger opposes a district’s formation because of the new property taxes that would come with it. He said he already pays $2,500 a year in property taxes. He’s living on a fixed income, like many county residents, and believes he shouldn’t have to pay more.
Gindlesperger said he thinks the county should consider privatizing the library.
“The library is a convenience, it’s nice to have, but it’s not something that our life will stop if they shutter the doors for awhile,” he said.
Millsap said the foundation looked into privatization a few years ago, and were told by the company that runs Jackson County’s library that it could not run Douglas County’s library system more cheaply than the county does. She understands why people don’t want to pay more taxes, but she said the library promotes community, encourages early readers and provides computer access.
“Everything you want is at your fingertips,” she said.