St. Marys officials looking at ways to reshape public library, limit public comments

City commissioners say they’re not sure that the public library accurately reflects interests of population

By: - December 8, 2022 4:00 pm
Matthew Childs, new mayor of St. Marys, said some limits should be set on city debates. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

Matthew Childs, new mayor of St. Marys, says some limits should be set on public comments at commission hearings. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

ST. MARYS — City officials in St. Marys are still looking at ways to reshape the county’s public library after voting under public pressure to extend the library’s lease for a year.

The ideas include changing the way board members are chosen for the Pottawatomie Wabaunsee Regional Library, as well as limiting public comment at city meetings.

The  St. Marys City Commission voted to extend the library’s lease without restrictions during a meeting Tuesday night. The decision came after months of debate following the library’s refusal to accept a renewal clause asking for the removal of all LGBTQ and socially divisive books from the shelves.

St. Marys Mayor Matthew Childs, who formulated the controversial renewal clause, said he and the other commissioners wanted to renew the lease but felt they were right to take a moral stand against the contents of the library. Childs said he still thought monitoring library books was reasonable.

“Some input from the community is a good idea,” he said during Tuesday’s meeting. “I don’t know what form exactly that takes. So I think we, as the sort of stewards trying to represent what the citizens want, I think we’ve achieved what we wanted to achieve there.”

The library has been housed in its current location since the 1980s, operating on an annual lease with the city. The library serves eight locations, including Alma, Alta Vista, Eskridge, Harveyville, Olsburg, Onaga, St. Marys and Westmoreland, with county residents funding the library through taxes.

An eight-member board of trustees provides oversight of the library’s operations, with Pottawatomie and Wabaunsee County commissioners appointing members to the board to serve four-year terms.

Gerard Kleinsmith, who serves as vice mayor on the St. Marys City Commission, said he had been doing research into the library’s funding and wanted to change the library board selection process. Kleinsmith said board members should be voted in, and he didn’t believe the current board accurately represented the people of St. Marys.

“It is, in my opinion, taxation without representation,” Kleinsmith said. “We had a party in Boston about this a long time ago. I have no authority to question anything the Wabaunsee County Commission does.”

Kleinsmith said one result of this setup is there are six books by Hillary Clinton in the library and none by former President Donald Trump, though many people in the county had voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. 

“Do they really have the interests and desires of the people of Pottawattamie County right up there in the front?” Kleinsmith said. “You can’t even check out one book by a former president who won the county by almost a four to one margin.”

Kleinsmith said according to his calculations, St. Marys City and St. Marys Township gave almost $474,000 dollars in tax dollars to the library, and he thought St. Marys should have more than one representative on the board as a result of the funding.

“I would venture to say that the majority of that $474,000 does come from St. Marys City and St. Mary’s Township,” Kleinsmith said.

“I think we need more people from St. Marys,” he added. “I think that’s what would be fair. I think that’s what would be even. That’s what would be the right thing to do.”

Judith Cremer, library director, said his math was wrong.

“Some of the things he said were not accurate,” Cremer said. “I talked to the county clerk and she told me how to figure out what tax revenue was generated by the community for the library and it was $16,668. It’s not accurate, but he may believe that, I don’t know.”

The city commissioners also spoke about limiting public debate at the meeting. Childs discussed setting limits on who could speak at city commission meetings in one of his first actions as mayor, citing the long discussion of the library’s lease renewal.

“Having sat through a number of very long meetings in my life, I think that we need to give ourselves some latitude on deciding when we’re hearing things that we’ve heard several times before,” Childs said.

Commissioners decided to discuss implementing procedures at a later date.

St. Marys residents say there is already a problem with a lack of communication and transparency from the five-person commission.

The commission runs the city, with five commissioners elected to serve three-year staggered terms. At the Tuesday meeting, the four commissioners present elected a mayor and vice mayor among themselves, choosing Childs and Kleinsmith.

This has been the practice since at least 2008, the last time a woman held a seat on the commission, with the positions of vice mayor, mayor and commissioners cycling between a small group of white men whose faith influences their public service. All members of the commission attend mass at the Society of St. Pius X, or SSPX, an extreme Catholic religious sect. The commissioners have said at previous meetings that their views are influenced by their religious affiliation.

Hannah Stockman, a St. Marys resident who advocates for change in the city’s culture and contributed to efforts to save the local public library, said there is a lot of external pressure to vote for SSPX members. In many cases, like in the most recent election, the only candidates on the ballot were part of the SSPX community.

“I don’t know how anybody ever would get in outside of people from the academy, because of the way that they’re kind of telling people what to vote for,” Stockman said. “I know that you can do that, but I just feel like they’re going a little over their boundary there.”

At the last few commission meetings, people have said they had no way to contact the commissioners about city issues. Contact information and the names of commissioners have been removed from the St. Marys government website, a change from previous months.

City officials have not responded to inquiries about the removal of contact information and have refused to give any comments to the Kansas Reflector at previous commission meetings.

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Rachel Mipro
Rachel Mipro

A graduate of Louisiana State University, Rachel Mipro has covered state government in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. She and her fellow team of journalists were 2022 Goldsmith Prize Semi-Finalists for their work featuring the rise of the KKK in northern Louisiana, following racially-motivated shootings in 1960. With her move to the Midwest, Rachel is now turning her focus toward issues within Kansas public policies.