City Commission takes half of library board recommendations for appointments

After 87 minutes of discussion and amending a motion twice, City Commissioners opted to take half of the Great Falls Public Library board’s recommendation for appointments to fill two vacancies.

In late September, the library board voted unanimously to appoint Anne Bulger to a second five-term and Jerry Hopkins to fill the remainder of a term through June 2024.

The board made that recommendation after interviewing 11 applicants for the position. Thirteen had applied but dropped out during the interview process.

Hopkins is the librarian at Great Falls High School.

Library board recommends two for appointment

Bulger has served on the library board for one term and was eligible and interested in serving a second term.

Under city policy at the time, the city didn’t need to advertise for the position and the library board recommended reappointing Bulger for a second term.

City Commissioners balked at the reappointment during a July meeting, in an apparent reaction to pushback from the library levy approval on a June 6 ballot.

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Commissioners asked the library to open the position and another position that was recently vacated by a board member who moved out of the state in August to applications.

The library board has five members who advise, recommend and advocate for the library.

The board also includes ex-officio members, one a city commissioner and one a county commissioner.

At the time, commissioners said they didn’t want to interview the candidates but asked the library board to do so and make a recommendation.

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The interviews were open to the public and the candidates were provided the set of questions in advance that were used for all candidates.

During the Oct. 3 commission meeting, Mayor Bob Kelly moved to take the board’s recommendation and appoint Bulger and Hopkins.

Multiple people spoke in favor of following the board’s recommendation and specifically in support of both Bulger and Hopkins.

Steve Vinnege, reading comments from Keith Duncan, who has opposed the library board appointment process for months, said that the city commission had a history of ignoring citizen concerns and that the library board shouldn’t make recommendations on their own board appointments.

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Grace Beck, a student at GFH who knows Hopkins through school programs, spoke in support of the board’s recommendation and her school librarian.

Donna Williams said she takes complaints about the appointment process as one of many attacks against the library.

“I resent it when people attack my public library,” she said.

Jeni Dodd said she wanted to see the commission represent the people instead of the current process and that the city should do away entirely with current board members making recommendations for appointments, which is the standard practice for most city boards.

Linda Masden and Kathy Hansen said they would rather the commission appoint Noelle Johnson to fill the remainder of the term through June 2024.

Hansen said she found it unusual that the library staff and board talked about being welcoming to all, they only chose someone already on the board.

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The board selected Bulger for reappointment and a second applicant from 12 who were not already on the board. Hopkins, their second recommendation has not served on the city library board previously and is not currently on the board.

Kelly, mayor, said he appreciated the public’s passion and heard the discussion on the process but wanted to remind the public that the commission already changed the rules over the summer and the library staff and board did everything commissioners asked of them.

“The library has done exactly as asked,” he said.

Kelly said that commissioners had declined to interview the candidates and that commissioners have always had the ability to reject a recommendation or seek other candidates.

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Kelly said he thought the conversation about the process as it related to library board appointments and their fiscal responsibilities, but changing the process at this point was appropriate. He said if the commission wants to change the process, they should wait until the new commission is seated in January, after the November municipal election, which includes the public safety levy and bond.

He said asking commissioners to interview candidates for advisory board is a burden.

Kelly said that he reviewed each application and was disappointed that some felt the need to include their political affiliation.

“That is of zero interest to me but is an indication…of the politicization coming into our community,” he said. “I’m very sad to see it.”

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Commissioner Rick Tryon said he read through the minutes of library board meetings from the last five years and counted 234 motions, of which he said, 233 were unanimous votes.

He said his take away from that was that there wasn’t much discussion at their board meetings.

Later in the meeting, Commissioner Susan Wolff, who serves at the ex-officio commission representative on the board, said board members go through training and do their homework for meetings.

“There’s vast discussion that goes on, I can’t agree this is a rubber stamp board,” she said.

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Tryon said he agreed it wasn’t the time to change the process, but later voted to appoint Noelle Johnson and said it would be beneficial to appoint someone the board hadn’t recommended.

Commissioner Joe McKenney said that in city code, the library board is advisory to the commission, but under the 1993 commission agreement with the library board, there’s conflict since that agreement gives the library more authority than a regular advisory board.

He said that community expectations of the library board had changed and was in favor of interviewing all library board applicants.

Wolff also serves as an ex officio member of the Great Falls International Airport Authority board, which commissioners interview for the city appointees.

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She said the airport doesn’t receive city funding and has the ability to hire and fire the airport directors and carries fiduciary responsibilities.

Wolff said the library board has governing authority, but the city manager oversees the directors employment and review, but the board also reviews their director.

“Libraries are places for learning and receiving services,” she said, and not political places. Wolff said some are trying to tie this board appointment to the library levy, but “that’s not what this is about.”

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She said the commission put the question to the community as to whether they wanted to add financial support to the library and the library levy passed.

“It’s time to move on folks,” she said.

Commissioner Eric Hinebauch moved to amend the motion to reappoint Bulger for a second five-year term and Noelle Johnson for the remainder of a term through June 2024.

After the amended motion, commissioners took additional public comment.

Alice Klundt said she knows Johnson and liked her but told commissioners that “she’s very political.”

Further public commenters discussed whether the library board appointment should be political.

On both sides, many in the room are active in local politics.

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Many who opposed the library board’s recommendation and supported Johnson’s appointment have been vocal in arguing that there was fraud in the local election process, have asked county commissioners to eliminate mail ballots and require hand counting of ballots. Many of them have been vocal supporters of Sandra Merchant, the current county clerk and recorder who oversees county elections. At least a few of them have vocally argued that there were flaws in the library levy election and contested the results. That election was run under Merchant.

Many of those in support of the library board’s recommendation have been vocal opponents of Merchant and supported the library levy.

Mayor Bob Kelly asked Commissioner Hinebauch why he nominated Johnson of the other applicants.

Hinebauch said he believed the authority to appoint members of the library board fell to the commission. He said in reviewing her application, he felt she was qualified and would offer a different perspective to the board.

Wolff said that if they were going to consider changing the appointments, they should pick three to five candidates and commissioners should interview them.

After the second amended motion, Alice Klundt said, “I think everybody ought to grow a pair and vote when [the library board] did what you asked for. Why can’t you trust people that know the business and allow them to carry on.”

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Some said if that was the approach, that commissioners should then interview all the candidates themselves to be fair.

Tryon said he didn’t see that working and wanted to go back to the first amended motion.

Wolff said in that case, she wanted to know the criteria that Hinebuach, Tryon and McKenney were choosing Johnson over Hopkins.

Tryon said he wasn’t basing it on technical qualifications but thought it would be good to appoint someone that hadn’t been recommended by the board.

McKenney said that he thought boards should have people with varied experiences.

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Hinebauch said it was the commission’s responsibility to appoint to the board and felt it was important to have a different view on the board.

The motion to amend the motion to interviewing three to five candidates failed 4-1.

That took commissioners back to voting on the initial amendment to appoint Bulger and Johnson.

Donna Williams, a member of the public, said that if the library board recommended there were nine who weren’t selected and asked why Hinebuach was choosing one out of that group.

Mayor Bob Kelly said there was merit to having varied opinions on boards. He said that Tryon used to disagree with the commission often until he joined it.

The amendment passed 3-2 with Kelly and Wolff opposed.

After a short break, staff pointed out that commissioners had only voted on amending the motion and still needed to vote on the amended motion.

Commissioner again voted 3-2, with Kelly and Wolff opposed, to appoint Bulger and Johnson to the library board.