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An environment to succeed: County commissioner candidates share views on public library, access to objectionable books

The candidates discussed their opinions on topics such as intellectual freedom and maintaining library infrastructure.

From left, Don Hollingshead, Larry Milbourn, Austin Rodemaker and Jess Ketcham sit on a Q&A panel Tuesday, July 9 at Laramie County Public Library in Cheyenne. (Jared Gendron/Cap City News)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — With just over a month until the Wyoming primary election, candidates are revving up their campaign messaging and community engagement. Just this week, local candidates met with dozens of public library staff members to discuss their views on overseeing library operations and intellectual freedom.

Tuesday morning, candidates for Laramie County commissioner participated in a private Q&A panel at the Laramie County Public Library in Cheyenne. The four candidates who participated were Don Hollingshead, Larry Milbourn, Austin Rodemaker and Jess Ketcham. The men shared their stances with library staff on topics such as appointment of citizens to the Laramie County Public Library Board of Directors and maintenance of library infrastructure. Furthermore, the four individuals discussed their stance on controversial materials in the library.

Antonia Gaona, executive director of the public library, moderated the panel discussion.

Intellectual freedom

Candidates who attended the Laramie County GOP’s “Politics in the Park” event June 19 were asked how they would handle controversial books in the public library. The question was again posed at Tuesday’s Q&A. In addition, Gaona asked participants to share their stance on intellectual freedom and a library’s ability to share diverse viewpoints.

All of the candidates stated they wouldn’t entertain the idea of removing material from the library on the grounds of personal bias or controversy. Hollingshead said comparing the public library to a school library is “apples and oranges,” adding that parents are accountable for the books their children access.

Diversity in viewpoints and experience is a pillar for good governance, Rodemaker said, and the library is abundant with diversity. He added that intellectual freedom in the U.S. is “of the utmost importance” and that as long as libraries adhere to federal oversight, they should be allowed to operate unencumbered.

Milbourn’s comments were consistent with those of his peers. The candidate said the library’s role is to provide “everybody with free and public access to all unrestricted information.” He added that removing objectionable material due to prejudice would violate the library bill of rights and tarnish intellectual freedom.

Ketcham stated that he doesn’t support banning books and that parents should decide what they are comfortable with their child reading. However, at the June “Politics in the Park” event, Ketcham stated books in the public library that contain sexually explicit content should be placed out of reach of children.

Library budget priorities

The candidates first answered how they would approach managing the county’s budget, then explained how the library’s funding would fit into the county’s financial priorities.

The topic of infrastructure came up several times among the candidates. Milbourn stated that as the county’s population continues to grow, it will be prudent to continue maintaining essential services such as the library. Rodemaker said he is concerned with bolstering county infrastructure, and the library is one piece of that.

“The library is an opportunity for people to come together to learn, to understand, to have meetings,” Rodemaker said. “The library is a portion of the overall community fabric for Laramie County. And so infrastructure as a whole … again, it’s creating an environment in which people can operate and succeed.”

Hollingshead said the library is a cornerstone not just of the community but also of democracy, and under state statute, the commissioners are obligated to fund and maintain the prosperity of the library.

Ketcham said he would compose a county mission statement and strategic plan. He is concerned with learning and providing the services residents need, such as improvements to library infrastructure. The candidate said he would want to look into available grants to fund library operating expenses.

Board appointees

Laramie County commissioners are responsible for appointing volunteers to the board of directors. Thus, Gaona asked the candidates how they would choose people to join the board and how they would oversee the committee’s activities.

Board members should be chosen based on addressing community needs rather than private interests, Ketcham said. Regarding board oversight, he added that the commissioners have a responsibility to maintain relationships with all library stakeholders.

Rodemaker said that once the right volunteers join the board, the commissioners should give them the freedom to perform their duties. Milbourn responded similarly, saying he wouldn’t influence decisions board members make and would instead choose board appointees based on their background and experience.

“That’s the type of commissioner that I want to be,” Milbourn said. “I want to be there as a support for the library board, but kind of stand back and help out where I can — avoid micromanaging and guiding decisions that I have no business in.”

The board of directors should consist of a diverse group of individuals with deep ties to the community, Hollingshead said. He added that the job of the commissioners is to be a support for the board whenever it needs assistance.

All but one of the candidates have composed written responses to each Q&A question. The candidates touched upon other topics such as their qualifications for being a commissioner and their approach to coordinating with other local government entities. Copies of their answers can be viewed below.

Update, July 10, 2024: This article was updated to include written responses from a sixth candidate. An original version of the story only contained responses from five people.