Alaska

Council OKs library grant at the center of censorship controversy

The Kenai City Council voted Wednesday to let the Kenai Community Library accept a $1,500 grant for the purchase of health and wellness titles, almost two months after the legislation first appeared before the body. The grant, awarded by Region 5 of the Network of the National Library of Medicine, will be used to replace outdated health and wellness materials.

The city council voted to postpone acceptance of the grant during its Oct. 20 meeting after some community members raised concerns about what books would be purchased with the money, as well as the agency awarding the grant.

Council members requested Kenai Community Library Director Katja Wolfe provide an inventory of proposed purchases to be funded by the grant. Among the topics the books would address, Wolfe said during the Oct. 20 council meeting, were mental health, suicide prevention, self-care, healthy habits and reference books about Medicare and Medicaid, among other things. Council member Jim Glendening asked Wolfe at the time whether the legislation allowing the library to accept the grant could be postponed so that the council could see an inventory of proposed purchases before they vote, the Clarion previously reported.

Kenai Deputy City Clerk Meghan Thibodeau told the Clarion on Oct. 22 that the legislation had been postponed “until the list of titles could be compiled.”

The vote to postpone prompted cries of censorship and launched a GoFundMe fundraiser that raised more than $15,000 for the library.

Among the people who donated to the GoFundMe were Kenai City Council members Glenese Pettey, Henry Knackstedt and James Baisden, Kenai City Manager Paul Ostrander, Kenai City Clerk Jamie Heinz, former Kenai City Council candidate Alex Douthit, Soldotna City Council members Justin Ruffridge and Dan Nelson and former Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre, and several Kenai Peninsula Borough employees, among others.

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Across the multiple meetings where the legislation was considered, members of the community voiced their support for acceptance of the grant and condemned censorship. Letters of support have come from local residents and from around the state, including from employees at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the Friends of the Kenai Community Library and other local librarians.

Meagan Zimpelmann, a library assistant at Kenai Peninsula College who holds a master’s degree in library and information science, wrote in a Nov. 30 letter to council members that comments made about the grant “raised (her) alarm.”

“I have no doubt that the Council understands that grant writing is a very labor-intensive process, fraught with red tape, restrictions and the inevitable reapplication,” Zimpelmann wrote. “The funds were set to be provided from a reputable institution (despite niche hints to the contrary). Full information about this particular grant and its requirements is freely available to anyone who puts in the effort of the most basic web search.”

Council members Knackstedt and Pettey — who opposed postponing the grant at the October meeting — reintroduced the legislation accepting the grant at the Dec. 1 meeting.

Because new city council members took their seats on the council after the legislation was postponed, the ordinance had to be introduced by the new council before a final vote could occur. The new council gave unanimous approval to the legislation on Wednesday.

Multiple council members during Wednesday’s council meeting expressed their support for the work of the library, as well as their desire to put the issue behind them.

Council member Teea Winger said her initial concern about the grant was about the source of the funding and “any strings that were attached to it.” Winger said Wednesday she put “countless hours” into researching the grant process and that she “feel(s) comfortable” accepting the grant.

“This wasn’t to censor books,” Winger said. “It was never about what books we could or couldn’t purchase. It was simply, for me, the source of the funding and the strings.”

Glendening said during the Wednesday meeting that his goal in having the discussion was to have “Library 101” and said that his concerns have been “well addressed.”

“I think we’ve been very well-informed by this process,” Glendening said. “Sometimes the rhetoric got a little spun up, but that’s OK. We’re humans and we do this and that’s why we have a public forum.”

Friends of the Kenai Community Library President Jane Fuerstenau said Thursday that the Friends had to set up a Paypal account to accept the funds given to the GoFundMe, but that they expect to see the money dispersed into their account at the end of the month. Money then donated to the library would also need approval from the city council.

“Then we can start talking about how we will use the funds,” Fuerstenau said.

Wednesday’s meeting of the Kenai City Council can be viewed on the city’s YouTube channel.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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