Commissioners reverse course, reappoint St. Joseph County Public Library board member
St. Joseph County Commissioners abruptly reversed course Tuesday, reappointing retired attorney Alan Feldbaum to the county library board despite initial pushback from right wing council members.
Supporters of Alan Feldbaum packed the council chambers on Tuesday, urging St. Joseph County Commissioners to backtrack on their decision to open up applications for his spot on the board of the St. Joseph County Library.
Among the speakers were library director Stephanie Murphy and community foundation director Rose Meissner who praised Feldbaum’s record and decried the increasing nationwide politicization of books.
“After 30 years with the community foundation, I do also understand the importance of a good board of directors,” Meissner said. “I’ve never seen a more obvious choice than Alan Feldbaum. It’s not just his experience, his integrity, his dedication to this cause, he also has a very important specialized knowledge.”
After the show of support, commissioner Derek Dieter made the unscheduled move to reappoint Feldbaum to his board seat. Commissioner Carl Baxmeyer voted against the motion saying the body should honor its public messaging that it would consider applications for the role. However, both Dieter and Deb Fleming voted to get Feldbaum’s appointment on the agenda.
Once up for a vote, all three of Republican commissioners approved Feldbaum’s reappointment, less than a week after they announced they would seek applications for the position.
Feldbaum’s term concludes at the end of the month and he seemed poised to be reappointed to his third four-year term. However, controversy from over the summer reared its head when Fleming said she received an email from council member Amy Drake who was opposed to Feldbaum’s reappointment.
At a few contentious library board meetings in July, a group of concerned parents challenged the library’s placement of certain books in the young adults section of the library. Some felt the books were sexually explicit, while others argue the books in question deal with LGBTQ issues and that restrictions and debates about the material risks further marginalizing those children.
However, the county commissioners, not the council, controls the appointment of two out of the library board’s eight members. Dieter on Tuesday referenced Drake’s opposition to Feldbaum saying the council was overstepping its authority.
“It’s an overreach what council members are trying to do,” Dieter said. “If you don’t want to read it, don’t look at it. This is America. You should be able to read what you want.”
Murphy, who oversees day-to-day operations of the library, said library staff, not the board, decide which books the library purchases and where they go. If someone files a complaint about a book’s placement, the board reviews it, but mostly for whether the proper process was followed in making its decision.
She stressed none of the 500,000 books in the St. Joe Library meet the legal definition of obscenity and that the library purchases books with all sorts of differing viewpoints.
“There’s a small group of people who want these policies,” Murphy said. “I don’t think it’s the majority. We all know that free people read freely. And part of that freedom is the freedom to read the book or not read the book.”
Only one person, Joe Lane of North Liberty, spoke against Feldbaum, saying there weren’t enough conservative voices on the board.
Feldbaum is a longtime area resident who spent most of his professional career as an attorney at Barnes & Thornburg. He was first appointed to the library board in 2016 after being nominated by Fleming.
Former library director Deb Futa said it was unfortunate Feldbaum’s tenure was ever in question.
"Values differ. But to begin to chip away at a person's freedom to read and communicate by limiting their access. The access to thought and expression. Is an erosion of our democracy," Futa said addressing commissioners. "I urge to reappoint Alan Feldbaum to the library board."