It’s a long way from Wyoming to Arkansas. For local writer, musician, singer and songwriter Casey Penn, that journey continues to be one step away from completion.
Today, she prepares to be one of the acts on stage for the VIP Pre-Show Concert Series at the annual Arkansas Country Music Awards on June 5, in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Tomorrow night, she will learn the final results in the category of Bluegrass Artist of the Year, of which she has been nominated.
One step away.
This three word phrase holds special meaning for Casey. It’s the title of her album, filled with eleven songs running the gamut of traditional country music, bluegrass, folk and faith. Each song is filled with her clear, honest and beautiful vocals that seem to float from her soul as natural as breathing.
To understand how Casey came to this point in her career, you have to understand how she got there. One step away.
She was born in Wyoming, but a life-changing decision was made by her father.
“When I was 10, my dad surrendered to preach and, of all places, he wanted to go to seminary in Arkansas.”, she recounts. “We knew some preachers down here that were Baptists and there wasn’t a lot of that up there (Wyoming) where I grew up, so we moved in 1983 to Arkansas. On my album I have a song called ‘Journey to Providence’ and it’s kind of about that move. While growing up, I always got that question, ‘How did you get to Arkansas?’, so it’s kind of that story. I grew up singing in church. I always like singing and, I guess, somewhere along there I realized that, hey, I think maybe this sounds like it’s OK, in my teen years. But I really never thought about doing it as a profession. At that age, you are just thinking about what I can do to get by. I got married young. I was 19, so I was going into college and wasn’t thinking about singing. I grew up singing in church, mainly, and just singing to the radio.” she recalls.
But it was a challenge issued by her grandfather that piqued her interest in playing the fiddle.
“My grandpa had an old fiddle and I think it was him that got me started.”, she said. “He had a fiddle but he didn’t play it. It wasn’t in good shape. I remember him humming “Maiden’s Prayer”, an old fiddle tune and he would say ‘whoever can play this thing can have it’. I always wanted to play it. So when we came to Arkansas, I started playing in the orchestra in school and then we moved to Poyen and I put the fiddle down for a while. If I had just known, there were probably people sitting on their porches jamming down there and I just didn’t know it. I probably could have really grown as a musician if I had just asked around down there.”
Casey also learned to play the guitar.
As the years passed, she got married, started writing freelance and started her own company, PennWords Writing & Design. But with all the details and daily duties these activities required, she never let music stray from her view. A family tragedy brought it all back into focus.
“When I lost my dad in 2011, that was a big wake-up call, because it was a sudden thing.”, she recalls. “He died in a work accident trying to help someone else. He was still a vibrant man. He was 61. Way too young. It made me think about things and drove me to get back to it with music. You can hear a bit of it in the song ‘One Step Away’. We are all just one step away from darkness or light and we never know when it will happen.”
After several years of songwriting, Casey says it still doesn’t come easy. “Well, it’s always tough. It’s still tough to me. Some people sit down and they can write a song in twenty minutes. That’s not me. I struggle with it. I don’t know if it comes from being a writer for so many years. I sit down to write an article and I tend to go off on too many different directions, too many tangents. In songwriting, I’m learning to find an idea and stick with it. When I can do that, it helps.”
For her, the question of which comes first, lyrics or melody, isn’t cut and dry.
“You know, that’s a question that I hear a lot and one I’ve asked a lot of people, too.”, Casey said. “I think it varies from writer to writer. Some people will get a riff in their head and they write to that. But typically I’ll start with maybe a title or a phrase. I think it was John Prine who once said that if you listen to people, they talk in melody. If you’re angry, you’re going to raise your voice. If you’re sad, your tone lowers. So if you just listen, you’ll sometimes get a melody from that too. That was a helpful quote when I read that. I try to think about it when I’m writing.”
Her hard work is paying off. In March 2022, she signed a deal for an album.
“It was pretty exciting.”, she said. “Mark Hodges, who’s the label head (Mountain Fever Records), I’ve known him for a few years. I have written about some of his artists. He was kind enough to listen to the project and give it a chance. I am so thankful for that.”
Getting into the studio was an exciting time for Casey.
“It was really something. I got to work with a guy named Chris Latham who’s over in Nashville who’s just a regular guy, just one of us. I actually searched for a while. I wondered who I was going to get to work with because I felt, you know, a little bit inadequate to get in there and do something like this. I needed someone who was helpful and easy to work with. It was exciting. At the time, I was in a duo and I had no plans to go solo, but I always wanted to make a bluegrass record and get it out there. So I used studio musicians for it and it was a site to behold to watch them work. We had three guys in there. I sang the scratch vocals and in two days we had eleven songs down. I came back later, honed in on vocals and added some harmony people and all of that. It was a pretty quick process for them but they knew what they were doing.”
And the hard work resulted in a nomination for Arkansas Bluegrass Artist of the Year and her album is #15 on the bluegrass charts.
One. Step. Away.
But, without a doubt, regardless of how it all turns out, it won’t be the last time we hear her fiddle, her guitar or that wonderful voice of hers.
“I didn’t grow up with bluegrass. I always had so much respect for it.”, she said. “I didn’t go around to festivals or sitting around jamming with it. I just didn’t know that stuff was going on when I was a kid. But once you get in that environment and watch, the amount of talent, for one thing, is amazing. The instruments, the old-time sounds, the banjo, the fiddle, guitar and the rhythm, that drive of bluegrass. It’s organic and a hard thing to fake. I learn by working with these musicians and trying to get to that level. It’s something, but I love it.”
But here’s the real reason we know she will be back.
“As you go through life, there are things that stick in the back of your mind and won’t let you go. Music was that for me.”
For the final story of our series on a resolution passed by the Saline County Quorum Court on April 17, we sat down with Patty Hector, county library director, and Kari Lapp, community engagement manager to hear what impact the resolution has had and reaction to it. The resolution suggested that “the library relocate materials that are not subject matter or age appropriate for children, due to their sexual content or imagery, to an area that is not accessible to children”.
Patty Hector, Saline County Library Director
Hector has been a librarian for 38 years in locations ranging from Fort Smith to California to Saline County. She has been in her current position as library director for Saline County for seven years.
Kari Lapp, Community Engagement Manager
Lapp has a degree in public relations and journalism with a minor in marketing. She has worked at the library for seven years. Previously she coordinated marketing for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.
The interview first focused on the resolution and Act 372 (SB81) that will become law in Arkansas later this year. The act, primarily sponsored by Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Justin Gonzales, co-sponsored by Mary Bentley & Matt Stone, all Republicans, of the Arkansas legislature, sets placement guidelines for books in the library that may be deemed as inappropriate for children and teens. The resolution passed by the quorum court contains similar language.
“One of the things I want to point out is that they made this law and they made this resolution, I still have to follow the law, that’s the First Amendment.”, Hector stated. “They tried to ban books or relocate books and there is court precedent where you can’t do that.”
She continued, “First of all, we have the Miller Test that decides what’s obscene. ‘Harmful to minors’ is really confusing and I have no idea what that means. Down in Texas in Wichita Falls, they had the ruling where the town city council was going to try to decide what books go where. So, censorship has been going on for a long time. In Sund v the city of Wichita Falls (link at end of story), they were trying to get rid of ‘Daddy’s Roommate’ and ‘Heather Has Two Mommies’ and they can’t do that. Back in the 1990s when I was in Fort Smith, Counts v. Cedarville High School, they tried to relocate Harry Potter books where kids couldn’t get to them and they (Cedarville High School) were told they can’t do that. So, relocating is the same as banning because they can’t find the books they are browsing. I have those laws that I have to follow and, until they change those laws, there’s nothing I can do. I’m between a rock and a hard place. They (Saline County Quorum Court) are telling me to relocate books that people don’t like, but I’ve got precedent that’s in the Western District of Arkansas that says I can’t do that.”
The new law adds new oversight for libraries, depending on the type of library. City libraries will report to the respective city council. In Saline County, the library will report to the quorum court.
We asked Hector if the library board still exists with the new law. “Yes,” she said, “but they (members) are put there by the county judge and the quorum court. So if we don’t do what the quorum court likes.”
“They kind of took them out of the equation with SB81.” Hector said. “It used to go to me to review and then you could go to the board. So, they took the boards out because every library is different. The new review committee is me, whoever they want, and then the quorum court. It takes it out of the people who understand libraries and it puts it into politicians’ hands. They’re elected. My board is not elected. I’m not elected. So, it politicized a process that shouldn’t be politicized.”
Does the library board still exist with the new law? “Yes,” said Hector, “but they are put there by the county judge and the quorum court. So, if we don’t do what the quorum court likes…”
Hector also feels board member selection will change. “In the past, the board has recommended people that are library users, that are interested in the library. So what Gonzalez and Sullivan said was that the library could ignore whatever the quorum court said about a book, but how do we ignore them, a body that appoints our board members. In other places, that’s how changes are made.”
Hector talked about contact with members of the quorum court and if any had made contact with her before and/or after the resolution was presented and passed.
“Here’s how this went down. Pat Bisbee has been our liaison for 20 years.”, she said. “Pat talked to me after the last (library) board meeting (April 12) and said this resolution was coming up. So then I tried to contact (Justice of the Peace) Jim Whitley. He was very hard to get hold of. He was out of town. So Pat had him finally call me. We talked about it and I think he was sincere in his wanting to protect children. He hadn’t been in to talk to the librarians. He hadn’t done any of that and he said that. He said, well we should have done more research. It’s obvious to me there’s more to this. But he didn’t say he was going to pull it. (Justices of the Peace) Keith Keck and Rick Bellinger came and looked around the library and talked to the library staff and said, ‘we just heard about this because it wasn’t in a committee meeting’. (Note: According to the meeting agenda posted April 13, the library resolution was listed under the ‘Add On’ section, following the ‘New Business’ category).
She continued, “They wanted to find out before Monday (April 17 Saline County Quorum Court meeting) before they were expected to vote on it. Keck said he would try to get me able to speak because if they pass a motion saying I can speak to them, that’s the only way I can talk to the quorum court, even though I’m a county employee. Nobody did that. Then during the meeting, they suggested it and they said, no, we don’t need to talk to the county librarian. I was there. I was in there early enough. I didn’t sign up for the three minutes because I thought I would have an actual discussion about it.”
Public comment speakers must sign up in advance in order to address the quorum court. Each speaker is limited to three minutes.
Additionally, on the day of April 17 prior to the quorum court meeting, Hector added, “I did talk to Pat (Bisbee) and (Saline County Judge) Matt Brumley came by to look at a book that was on a list that someone had sent him to check on. And I may have talked to him before, telling him what’s coming down the pipe because I knew that this was coming. One of my board members has emailed them and said she’s not happy with how library supporters were treated (at the April 17 quorum court meeting). They talked about decorum and then they let other people just tear down, in a personal way, the library staff that spoke.”
Hector then compared public comments to those seen online and in social media. “It’s been much, much worse online,” she said.
She spoke of how she thought operations at the library would be in the days before and those following the law going into effect.
“I’m telling you, I have the First Amendment, that’s the Constitution.”, she said. “I have to serve everybody in the community. I have to have books for everybody. I know they think they are age inappropriate, but one thirteen-year-old could read George R. R. Martin (Author of A Game of Thrones) and one eighteen-year-old couldn’t. It’s in the Adult section, it’s not in the Young Adult section. We buy books that are about that age group, by that age group. It’s not black and white and that’s what they want it to be, and it’s not. My staff are really good at their jobs. They’re experienced and they know the kids. They work with them and you can’t erase LGBTQ and people of color. I’m not going to let that happen.”
What do you say to people who think you are overreacting?
“Do they know anyone who is anything other than a white, heterosexual.”, she said. “Because this is, they (LGBTQ) are under attack all the time and I’m not personally any of those things. I’m not a person of color. I’m not gay or any of those things. But I have friends who are and this shouldn’t be happening. And it’s happening everywhere. They’re making laws. They’re trying to ban books. And it goes against my personal ethics, my feelings as a Christian, and my professional ethics.”
What do you say to people who say they are a Christian and you aren’t a Christian if you believe in anything other than a heterosexual couple?
“That’s their opinion. I have a different opinion.” Hector stated. “I read the Bible and I don’t see Jesus saying ‘Ban these people’. And I try not to bring my religion into my professional life. I try not to bring in that I’m a Democrat. Librarians really do have professional ethics. We buy books for people in the community. We don’t let our personal issues come into play.”
Hector then mirrored those thoughts toward the quorum court. “Why is the quorum court quoting the Bible?”, she asked. “The JPs are putting religion into a public institution. It just shouldn’t be there.”
We asked Hector to show where the six books in question that were brought before the quorum courts were located within the library. She responded, “Sure. We can show you where the books are located but I don’t think we can show you the books because they are still checked out. They check them out and then they don’t bring them back.” She continued, “It’s not sexual content (they are after). That’s the wedge that they use to get people inflamed about it. But they made comments at the meeting that they don’t want anything that’s anti-white, LGBTQ. They are very judgmental. I feel like their comments on their web page are very personal and hurtful.”
“I think it’s also important that we did not start those rumors about defunding the library. That was on the SCRW (Saline County Republican Women’s) Facebook page.”, Hector added.
Lapp spoke of her own experience. “There were comments made about people.”, she said. “We did not post anything online, but there were comments made and people were saying this is what the whole point is. Even things that were said in the first quorum court meeting were definitely questionable about what the intentions were.”
Hector reiterated, “The law says that relocating is the same as banning if people can’t find it.”
Lapp pointed to documentation on the Saline County Library website on this topic. “That’s mentioned in our Intellectual Freedom Policy as well. We can’t put a sticker on a book saying it covers this topic because then that’s also discriminating against as well.”
Lapp continued, “I’ve seen jokes that we’re going to have Playboy (magazine) next. No, that is judicially obscene and we can not have judicially obscene because we can’t even purchase judicially obscene. Our vendors do not have judicially obscene materials because it’s illegal.”
Hector added, “And when the court decides some book we have is harmful to minors or is obscene, I will take it off the shelves. But there are a thousand different opinions about which book is bad. If I take it off, someone will be mad. If I don’t take it off the shelf, they’re mad.
Lapp said the library has measures available to parents. “We do encourage our parents and guardians to be aware of what their children are checking out and they (parents) have full access to that, especially with our app now. It is available on your phone.”, she explained. “I can get my whole family and see what my kids and my husband have checked out. And so it’s not that we are keeping things a secret between the children and the parents. They have full access.”
Lapp reiterated that parental control over what a child may access at the county libraries is stronger than it was just a generation ago.
“When a child gets a card, on the back of it, the child and the parent have to sign it that says I (the parent) am responsible for everything on this card. The child and the parent must sign that.”
At the end of our interview, Hector reiterated, “The law says that relocating is the same as banning if people can’t find it.”
A chart showing when the original books in question have been checked out.
At present, there are 51,322 books downstairs in the Bob Herzfeld Memorial Library in Benton where the children, teen and young adult books are located. Of those 821 are board books; 9,626 picture books; 3,315 easy readers; 11,852 chapter books; 1,195 children’s audio books; 5,250 Young Adult books; 289 Young Adult audiobooks; 18,974 adult fiction books. The downstairs area encompasses 32,000 sq.ft. of area.
Kara Conrad is a teacher and a self-proclaimed lover of books. In 2022, she found a way to combine these two passions and sought a spot on the Saline County Library Board of Trustees. She agreed to share her point of view regarding a resolution passed by the Saline County Quorum Court on April 17 that suggested the two libraries in the county system to “enact policies to relocate materials that are not subject matter or age appropriate for children, due to their sexual content or imagery, to an area that is not accessible to children.”
Her comments in this report are hers as a member and she is not speaking as a spokesperson for the full board. She spoke of how she came to be on the board in 2022. Conrad is one of five board members. The others four are: Allison Nolley, Caroline Miller Robinson, Marian Douglas, Laine Holleran. Each member was contacted for an interview request.
“Speaking from my own experience, I put in an application to be on the board when someone I know told me about it.” Conrad said. “I had to go to the County judge’s office and be confirmed by the QC before I could begin in July of last year. I have only taken someone’s place who had to resign so I’m fulfilling her term. Typically, terms are for five years.”
Addressing her motivation for joining the board, Conrad said, “I was very interested in being on the board because I love books and reading and libraries. Always have, always will. I saw the board as a way to give back to Saline County while being a part of something I love. It seemed like a win-win.”
Kara Conrad is a school teacher with near 30 years experience , Saline County resident, and lover of books.
The conversation turned to the April 17 resolution and how it came to be from her perspective.
“My memory of the sequence of events is that we were not contacted as a board prior to the meeting by either a JP (Justice of the Peace) or the county judge about the resolution.”, she replied. “I emailed most, if not all the JPs and the (County) Judge once I heard about the meeting and some of them responded to those emails, with varying degrees of information. While I did identify myself as a board member in those messages, I also wanted them to know I was contacting them as a citizen, mom, and teacher as well.”
With the understanding that the resolution was, as related during the April 17 meeting of the quorum court, a “suggestion” without the power of enforcement, Conrad gave her view on the necessity of it.
“I didn’t feel the resolution was necessary for several reasons.”, she said. “One, we all know the new law will take effect soon. Also, there are procedures in place for when someone wants to challenge a book and none of those procedures had been followed. I personally didn’t see the point of making a resolution to make additional steps when the current ones weren’t being followed. Lastly, I was very concerned that books labeled sexually explicit were just the first step in a very slippery slope. Unfortunately, I fear I was correct in that. We (the community) have already seen this begin as some of the most vocal proponents of pulling books have added any book for children with LGBTQ characters as well as books about race relations and social justice.”
Conrad went on to share her thoughts on the rationale of how the resolution came to be.
“As for why the resolution was presented and passed, I can only give you my opinion based on what I’ve seen and heard myself.”, she continued. “There is a group who has made this their calling and while I typically admire anyone fighting for children, I see some ‘spoiling for a fight’ among some. They wanted to find books they didn’t like, and of course they did. I LOVE books and I know if I searched, I could find books at any library that I don’t like, disagree with, or am offended by. I don’t make those searches because I’ve understood these are public libraries that serve myself and my family, but also every other family in a community. I go to the library (both now and for years before I was on the board) to find books and materials I DO want to interact with. That being said, I absolutely recognize there are many people who have concerns about book content and truly want what is best for kids. I believe that for most on the QC (Quorum Court) that is the case. I do not think members of the court have an ulterior motive in making the resolution – they were going with the information they had and doing what they felt was right. I definitely wish more of them would have taken some time to talk to librarians or even visited the library before taking a vote or even writing the resolution. I know a couple who did, but most did not. That is unfortunate.”
Conrad said the board has reviewed the policies currently in place to ensure compliance with Act 372.
She recounted the type of calls and feedback she has received from members of the community since the resolution passed.
“I have received, and I assume other board members have as well, several emails and a phone call from community members since the April meeting. Most have been very polite, asking for my stance on the situation. A few have not been as kind. I have tried to answer everyone, and not give a cut and paste response. I really do appreciate the conversations, as I feel that is a critical step missed from all of this, and a large part of why we’re currently experiencing so much divisiveness. I always tell people who reach out about the process in place to challenge a book. I want them to use that if they feel it necessary – I want to hear what the issues are.”
We asked her to share any additional feedback she has received, whether it be positive or critical.
“One of the positives of the April meeting was the large turnout. While I know many were not there in support of the library, so many were! It was amazing to stand in that long line and have conversations with strangers and find we had so much in common. It was a community highlight, I think. I’ve also been stopped not so much as a board member but as a known ‘bookworm’ and heard comments on both sides of the issue. Again, it’s these conversations that are so critical in the county growing through this process. One person told me that she didn’t understand if she could respect a person’s right to check out Christian literature at the library, even though she isn’t a Christian herself, why can’t they also respect her right to check out books of her choosing, even if they don’t agree with the book? She was not speaking of the sexually explicit material but rather the books on social justice which many have targeted as well. I know there are citizens who are strongly against the resolution who have come together to support the library.”
She went on to describe the criticism she has seen.
“If the line to get into the meeting was a highlight, the rhetoric and vitriol being spewed over social media is definitely a low point. Members of SCRW (Saline County Republican Women) have said on social media, and to me personally, that they are being attacked verbally. I hate to hear that and while I have no reason to doubt them, I have not seen that myself. What I have seen and heard is librarians and board members being called groomers, pedophiles, and other equally atrocious names. It’s frustrating of course, but it’s also a bit sad. Ok, more than a bit sad. Most of the folks throwing those names around have never had a conversation with me or I presume with others who they’ve assigned those names. They wouldn’t know me if we passed each other on the street, yet because we are connected to the library, they feel it’s ok to say these things. Some of these people also like to say ‘I don’t hate the library. I LOVE the library and the people who work there.’ But really? I don’t see that in their comments. The camp counselor in me just wants us all to sit down and talk. TALK, not name call and throw accusations. I actually asked the president of SCRW if she’d meet me for coffee one day. She seemed open to the idea. I’ve not followed up on it because of all the ugliness that has followed, (but)not ugliness from her.”
The question was then posed, if the library is in full compliance with the new law from day-one, do you think the current efforts aimed at the books in question will continue?
“I do because even at the meeting one speaker declared she would be back to QC meetings with books until she’d put every sexually explicit, LGBTQ book and every anti-white book in front of them. Not a direct quote of course but she did use the term ‘anti-white’. For some of the most vocal groups, they’ve said reports of defunding the library or banning books are lies, but then some of them will comment in other places that if the books they want out aren’t taken out, they will move to defund, that the defunding in other states may be what it takes, that our library’s shelves should look as empty as those in other states facing book banning. One caller told me she wanted ‘those books’ taken out of the children’s area. Then added ‘really I want to see them gone altogether’. So no, I don’t think this is going to go away with the law.”
The topic of banning books was addressed.
“Banning books is not something I see myself advocating for.” She continued, “It’s not for me to say what others can read, especially in a public space. Relocating? I’ve not ever had to consider that, and honestly, I think had I been given the chance to hear their concerns, I may have been more ‘on their side’ than they imagine. I do understand the concerns of parents worried their preteen may wander onto a book with sexually explicit material. I would’ve liked the opportunity to hear their concerns. The thought seems to be that as a board member, I have read every book in the library. As much as I read, even I have not done that! I am reading books that have either been on banned lists elsewhere or that have come up locally. I want to be informed. I can’t have an opinion on something I’ve not read.”
Cutting or eliminating funding to public libraries is also a subject upon which Conrad commented.
“Cutting funding is scary as I think about all the families I know who use the library’s services for everything from cake pans to MakerSpace to Wi-Fi. One of the first things teachers recommend for kids during the summer is the library’s summer reading program. I know so many families who simply cannot afford to buy books (or cake pans or art supplies). Libraries help level the playing field for those who may not have the resources some of us have.”
She shared her final thoughts
“This is such a deeply personal topic for me. I am so sad, and angry, that this much hate and division has come to our town in the form of books.” Conrad said.
“I think we have more in common than not. We all want to do what is best for kids. We all want our families and others we care about to be happy, feel safe, grow strong. We want to make decisions for ourselves and our children. We want to do our jobs, volunteer our time, live our lives without being called the worst of names. I hope the adults can come together and make a plan that makes Saline County stronger.”
During the April 17 meeting of the Saline County Quorum Court, a packed courtroom was filled with opponents and supporters of the resolution addressing age-appropriate material in the children’s section of the county libraries. Today’s post is our interview with Dallas Guynes, a member of the Saline County Republican Women group. Our meeting took place on May 5 in a conference room at the Bob Herzfeld Memorial Library in Benton. Requests for interviews were also sent to three other members of the group: Jennifer Lancaster, current president; Stephanie Duke; Angela Gray. Lancaster and Duke directly responded and declined interviews. Duke stated she forwarded the request to Gray and then subsequently submitting the declination as proxy. All three were offered to respond via email to a set of questions in place of a sit-down interview. Each declined.
For clarification, Guynes was asked if her interview would be as a representative of the Saline County Republican Women or as an individual. She responded, “Let’s just say as an individual. I mean, I chartered Saline County Republican Women. I am the past president. And I am a member. An active member.”
Dallas Guynes is the founding president of the Saline County Republican Women group and is currently an active member.
Guynes was asked to discuss her background for readers to gain an understanding of who she is and her interests and how she got involved.
“I started Saline County Republican Women Committee in 2020 before the election because, in the height of COVID, in all the polarity of that and all the polarity of politics – the Trump/Biden politics, the Trump/Clinton politics – I felt like Christian conservative voices were lost. Now, it might have been because the media played up the other side more so than the Republicans and I felt like, as a Christian conservative mother, I felt alone. I felt that there were people out there that felt like me, but I’m very vocal. So I know that there are strong women in our community that want Christian values, want Christian friends, want to make sure their children are in Christian settings, or conservative settings, or, you know, just traditional settings. And we didn’t have allies. It’s not that we’re against or we’re not diverse, but I think that the Left doesn’t, wasn’t diverse in the fact that they don’t accept Christians. They don’t accept conservatives. Conservatives and Christians are charged with accepting everyone, but the other side is not. And, safety in numbers. And, so, that’s why I started the Saline County Republican Women, because I felt like there was a need. If you get on the Republican National Women’s website, you can see there’s a whole gamut that the Republican women can do in our community. There’s literacy, helping veterans, I mean there’s just all these programs and it’s a wonderful organization. And I wanted to start that, to offer that for ladies in our community so we can meet other people who are like-minded.”
Guynes continued by saying that when the Saline County Republican Women started, there were less than 100 members, but “it’s grown a lot. The current president, Jennifer Lancaster, has done wonderful things, but she’s been involved in politics longer than I have. She’s more connected than I am, so she’s able to do things that I wasn’t able to do and I support everything she’s done.”
Specifically, Guynes mentioned “Constitution Camp”, a program that helps educate children about the United States Constitution. “This will be our third year,” she said, “and it’s phenomenal because our children can come there and learn the Preamble, the Constitution, the three branches of government. How it works and what our forefathers had in mind when they started our country. I think there’s a lot of misguided information and misconceptions about what our country was supposed to be when it started out. There’s nothing wrong with our constitution. People just need to read it. It’s very rewarding to see a seven-year-old come in and learn the Preamble, the Constitution and say ‘Well, John Locke said that’. It’s very rewarding because, unfortunately, our schools are doing that. They’re not teaching Civics. If they are, they’re not teaching an in-depth version. So, as a conservative, as someone that loves our country, and loves the constitution of this country, that is important to me and it’s an important goal to all our Republican Women. And we work very hard. We spent a lot of money to put that on that. But, you know, that’s the type of stuff that when I formed the Saline County Republican Women, that’s the sort of thing that I envisioned and that is what we continue to do. We grow and evolve and we see things that we need to address and we come together as a group and we do it. But now, some ladies may be like ‘that’s not my fight’ and I haven’t been heavily involved in the library situation. I’ve had personal things going on. My father’s very ill so I’ve been busy taking care of him with my mom. I’m an only child, so that’s kept me kind of out of the loop, but it’s not something I’m against. I support the women and what they are doing and I support the other people that have come onboard.”
We then discussed the resolution passed by the Saline County Quorum Court and the reactions to it.
“To say is this a Saline County Republican Women driven thing, no. But those women bring their kids in here to the library and see these things (books such as those presented during the April 17 quorum court meeting) said Guynes.
This writer has not seen physical copies of the books, only pages from them that have been posted on social media.
Guynes said she had. “I held them last night (May4) at the Saline County (Republican) Committee meeting and it was a packed room. We had a table completely full of these books. Now, let’s just take an example. When you go to the grocery store, Cosmopolitan magazine has some sexual topics and you know what they do? They have a piece of cardboard or a piece of plastic over that magazine where you can’t see it. You have to move it to see it. I’m not against freedom of speech, but there’s a reason why movies are rated. There’s a reason why they have the plastic or the cardboard over the magazine. We’re supposed to protect our children. You know, I’m not saying that somebody can’t come in here (library) and check that book out if they think that’s what they want to do. If that’s how they want to raise their child, that’s their business. But I shouldn’t have to worry about what my four-year-old is going to pull off a shelf next to Dr. Suess and it’s people having sex. People doing stuff that, as a 50-year-old woman, this is news to me. I don’t even know what that is. I think that’s not appropriate and I think it’s very correct for the community to come together and go ‘Hey, let’s don’t do this’. If you’re a Christian, and, you know, it says we’re supposed to have dominion over, you know, God made us all in his image and we’re supposed to have dominion. So if those are your beliefs, that sort of thing on a bookshelf in the children’s section of the library is outrageous.”
The topic changed to discerning the difference between what’s available on the free market versus availability in government owned or tax funded institution such as libraries.
“When you send your kids to school,” Guynes noted, “you expect them to learn reading, writing and arithmetic. You don’t expect them to come home and say ‘I’m a cat’, let’s get a litter box. I do see a difference in the standard as far as government is funded by taxpayers, so they must answer to the people. The people rule. That’s our state motto. So, yea, if I have a business and I want to put those books out on a shelf in my business, there’s really not a lot you can do except just don’t come into my business. But if you’re run by the government and you’re tax funded, you answer to me, you answer to her, you answer all of us.”
In regard to Act 372 which goes into effect July 1 in Arkansas and a reference to it in the body of the resolution passed on April 17 by the Saline County Quorum Court, Guynes explained her point of view. The resolution and Act 372 address placement of books in children’s sections of the library.
“I don’t have a problem with that,’ she said. “If y’all go to the movies, if I drop my fourteen-year-old off at the movies, they can’t go to an “R” rated movie unless I buy that ticket. I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t think anyone should have a problem with that. One of these ladies that has been heavily involved in this library situation actually posted some of these books and pictures on Facebook and guess what Facebook did. They had a problem with it and they took the post down. Case closed to me. So, what I’m saying is that, Facebook thinks it’s obscene, Hollywood thinks it. A parent needs to be in charge of it. So the tax payer funded library needs to listen to Facebook, Hollywood, and their constituents. The people that are paying and funding for this (the library) to be.”
Guynes then restated she is not against freedom of speech. She used the analogy of video stores of the past that kept adult videos in a separate area with restricted access, suggesting the same approach be taken at the library concerning books that have content that is not age appropriate for the children’s section.
Which brought us to the resolution, the understanding that it doesn’t compel action by the library, that a new state law is forthcoming that will compel action by the libraries and their staff. Why was it necessary for a resolution that “suggests” that “The library should enact policies to relocate materials that are not subject matter or age appropriate for children, due to their sexual content or imagery, to an area that is not accessible to children.”?
Guynes responded, “Is she doing it? Is she going to wait until the law goes into effect?” We asked Guynes what she thought. “It sounds like it”, was her response. She continued, “This is sounding an alarm. This is, ‘Hey, Saline County’. This has brought attention to people who don’t pay attention normally. This has brought it to light. So, now, someone that probably wasn’t paying attention has heard about this and they come into the library and they’re going to be more cautious about what is on the shelf. If the resolution wouldn’t have occurred, we’d all still be asleep at the wheel. There’s a lot of that. So that’s another reason why I chartered Saline County Republican Women because there are a lot of people that are just busy going to work and coming home and going to the ballpark and trying to make ends meet, that they don’t know what’s going on. Or they would like to be a part of trying to fix something, but it’s too big of a bite. So we have a lot of people doing little bites and we can make things happen, just like we have made this happen. We’ve made our community aware that there’s an issue in our library that needs to be addressed.”
Guynes continued, “I’ve been involved in legislation from education to guns, and I’m just going to tell you right now, most people don’t know what’s going on. Even when there’s a law passed, the people that are affected don’t even know what’s going on, especially when they don’t want to be fixing it. So if you don’t have people, especially if it’s not mandated, whether some sort of penalty and they don’t have to be financial, something that gets people’s attention, nothing changes. I’ve been a part of legislation that was nothing but paper. And, unfortunately, if you don’t do something, nothing ever happens. To me, a resolution is a strong opinion. Hey, this group of people, we feel very strong about this situation and we need to sound the alarm.”
There has been talk in the community that there is a master plan to defund the library, fully or partially, and to start banning books. We asked Guynes for comment.
“I know that there’s another state that defunded the library. Was it Indiana, Missouri or some place. I’m not for that.’, she said. “I’m for freedom of speech. I’m for people being able to read. I’m a big literacy advocate. I joke, I say I’m a modern-day Frederick Douglas. I’m all about reading and guns. So, you should listen to someone that used to be a slave. People should read what they say. I don’t think we should do away with libraries, but if they become to the point where they’re not a library, if they are just someone who is getting money that’s unchecked and they’re not doing literacy, they’re doing an agenda, then maybe it should be re-looked at. Maybe it should be re-invented.”
The question was then posed that if Guynes felt the law that is going into place will address that concern.
“Not if the people don’t”, she responded. “A law is just a law unless the people say, hey, you know.”
The new law places libraries under closer control of local government. A city library will report to the respective city council and county libraries such as Saline County will report to the quorum court. Is this something Guynes views as positive.
“They should be. The quorum court should be.’ Guynes said. “I went to a quorum court meeting over a year ago about, I don’t even remember what it was about. But when I was at the meeting they were taking a vote on some employees that they had hired, the library had hired. And, basically, it was just a going-through-a-motion type thing. They were going to approve or not approve the hiring of a couple of employees. And they voted on it. There was no discussion. Nobody said have you seen who these people are, nothing. And I asked the JP, what’s the deal with that? What’s going on with the library? Who’s really, cause that’s the kind of thing that fascinates me because I have watched education not be held accountable. Nobody holds them really accountable. So I was curious as to who is really holding the library accountable with their funds. That was over a year ago and I said something in passing to several different people. I said, what are we doing here? Who’s really in charge of the library? ‘Oh well, the JP. The quorum court really doesn’t have anything to do with it. That’s a board.’ I said so why are y’all even voting on it. ‘Well because the funds come from us.’ But the funds come from the county so the county should be holding the library accountable.
To me, I think I’m giving the county money for the library to provide the library with library services. Now, to me library services are information, books. Now here we go again with information. I’m for free speech. I’m not a big censorship person. But we have to protect our children. I’m not for sexualizing children, at all. I mean, whether that’s dressing my four-year-old up with make-up from head to toe with glitz and glamour and half-dressed and she’s gyrating out there on the stage, I am not for that at all. I’m not for any sexualization of children. I was a child. I was a big tomboy. I would take my shirt off and play football and get in the ditch. I was raised in the country, you know. No one ssid, I didn’t want to be a girl. I thought being a girl was stupid. So it scares me today to think that I could have made a statement that I think it’s stupid to be a girl. I don’t want to be a girl and somebody could have said ‘Oh, you’re not going to be a girl anymore.’ I probably would have went along with it. But today, I’m glad I’m a woman and I’ve had three children. So, it scares me when someone starts sexualizing a child and then when you look at the data that where these children have gone through the hormone replacement therapy and all that, it’s not good. Most of them, when they become adults, they have all sorts of problems. You start tinkering with anyone’s hormones, I mean just look at women when they go through menopause. When they start messing with hormones, you’ve got problems. I have a lot of concerns about that. I’m not for any type of sexualization of a child. Let them be a child. You have the rest of your life to figure out if you want to be a boy or a girl, or if you like boys or if you like girls. Let kids be kids. And, unfortunately, we’ve allowed children to make decisions, we’ve allowed adults with agendas and their own mental health problems to project that on children and we have to stop it. And I think taking that off the shelf of the children’s section is stopping it.”
We asked, “So what if all this gets put in place, the laws in place, the library is following the letter of the law, and there’s still an issue. Where do you see it going from there? What steps?”
“I don’t know. I think maybe it’s time for the quorum court to address who’s in charge if it’s still an issue. Because the people of this county have gotten together and said ‘Hey, this is what we want our library to reflect in our community. So if you have someone in charge of the library who has an agenda that doesn’t care about the wishes of the community or the taxpayers that pay her salary or his salary, then it might be time for them to move on to a different place where they’re a better fit. Where they can do their agenda.”
On April 24, one week following the April 17 quorum court meeting, the Saline County Republican Women filed paperwork to become a Political Action Committee, or PAC. We asked Guynes about the filing.
“One of the reasons we formed a PAC is so we can, Constitution Camp costs a lot of money,” she said. “I mean I spent thousands of dollars out of my own personal pocket to put on Constitution Camp. Not only me, other ladies. That’s just one thing. We’re heavily involved in trying to help teen mothers, teen pregnant mothers. There’s all sorts of things we want to do and we can do things.” She said that it allows the group to raise money for those efforts.
A final question was posed regarding the membership of the Saline County Republican Women and that the group is lockstep and no disagreement within it.
“I don’t agree with that,” she said. “I can think of several ladies in our group that may not agree with everything that the group is doing. But it’s not just the Saline County Republican Women that are wanting to address the library situation. So, it shouldn’t be that way. It shouldn’t be seen that way. It shouldn’t be told that it’s that way because it’s not. It’s not. There’s people that have never been to the Saline County Republican Women meeting that are upset about this and want to be part of it. People are getting involved in government and I think it’s wonderful.”
After the Saline County Quorum Court passed a resolution during the group’s April 17 meeting, opponents of the measure came together to form the Saline County Library Alliance. On April 27, Bailey Morgan spoke with us about the Alliance, why it formed and the goals of the group. Mr. Morgan is also the chairman of the Saline County Democratic Party.
Bailey Morgan is the chair of the Democratic Party of Saline County and founding member of the Saline County Library Alliance
“I wasn’t aware of the initial quorum court meeting (March 30) where they had brought some kids books up. This was before the big, massive blow-up on social media ” Morgan said. “It wasn’t something on my radar until somebody shared a post saying ‘this is what’s coming up at the next quorum court meeting’. I think it even said the Saline County Republican Women are going to bring a group with some books and they are going to try to, I don’t even know if it was at the time a defund thing, they still haven’t said that’s what it is. It was implied in the post that it was similar to the Craighead County thing.
And so, the first thing I did was find out. I was told by my second vice-chair with the DPSC (Dustin Parsons, Democratic Party of Saline County) who notified me. I called Dean (McDonald) who lives in northeast Arkansas. I asked ‘this is what’s brewing down here. Have you heard anything?’. And he was like, I saw a Facebook post. And I was like, we are on the same page. So I confirmed it with some libraries that this was something that was going on that I had missed. I confirmed it with them and then, ok, we will mount a little bit of an effort to go to the quorum court and, you know, be a voice of reason on this. Because, at the time, generally, all that it was, was a couple of picture books.”
At this point, a decision was made.
“We’ll go get some people together, thinking it was going to be about a ten person meeting and if it gets any bigger, that’s ok.” Morgan recalls. “Literally, the day I had that thought was the day they (Saline County Republican Women group) started posting pictures (of the books). For me, it started out because I have the personal buy-in, but I love the library. They’ve been good to me. It’s the first place (my wife and I) went when we moved here. So I decided I’m going to go defend them. But also I felt a personal responsibility as chair of the Democratic Party of Saline County, we have a priority for not letting that institution go anywhere. It provides critical services to the public that we see as crucial.”
Bailey began to spread the word about the library issue. As details grew, the conversations included more than 200 people in about a week.
“By the time of the quorum court meeting, I think it was about 175 people.” Morgan said. “And so, I was, ok this is something bigger than I would have necessarily anticipated. People are very passionate about it because it exploded in a matter of days.”
From this point, Morgan looked to what had happened in Craighead County.
“It took them a little while but they built Citizens Defending the Craighead County Library. A coalition. So I reached out to some folks and asked if this was something they may be interested in and found out that a fight for the first website had been created under the name The Saline County Library Alliance. I searched for the owner and was basically given permission to start gathering people under that coalition name. And it was important to me from the jump that it needed to be a non-partisan thing. That’s how it started.”
Morgan said that meetings had begun and the first of which was standing room only at the Democratic Party of Saline County Headquarters in Downtown Benton.
He described the goals of the group.
“It’s going to be a two-pronged approach. The first is education and how the library operates.” Morgan said. “By that I mean that the library already had a method for challenging books. Through the seven years the library director (Patty Hector) has been there, it’s never been used. They directly bypassed it. We needed to inform people that this process already existed. We need to inform people of how it’s determined where books go. Generally speaking there are some people who are someone in the middle who don’t really know the process and see some of these posts and think that’s it’s everywhere and a systemic problem when it may just be how the American Library Association rated that book. We also want to educate people what a quorum court is, what the library board is, what the roles of these different boards. What is a JP (Justice of the Peace)? You’d be shocked at how many people don’t know. When we were trying to put together folks to go to the quorum court meeting, a question I got a few times was which judge was presiding over the hearing. It’s not that kind of court.”
Morgan continued by saying the group meetings went well and that members of the alliance like the non-partisan messaging.
“I don’t know why it’s coming out this way, but this issue is being treated very politically and pushing people to believe it is political.” Morgan relates. “It’s inconvenient, as the Democratic Party chair, but we have to be an ally with the alliance, even if it appears to be political, but it isn’t.”
Morgan states that there have been posts from people inside and outside Saline County that attempt to imply his involvement makes it political.
“(They) say, look, he’s a Democrat. That’s why he feels this way. I think that’s really unfortunate that that’s how it is being painted.” Morgan said. “I think I would feel this way (about the resolution and the library) regardless of how I had landed. But I think with the people that we have in this group, they’re not all members of the Democratic Party. In fact, a lot of the faces that I saw last night at the meeting, I’ve never seen before in my life. I felt, I probably would have seen them if they had been a member of the Democratic Party.”
The second prong is volunteer training.
Morgan then turned his attention to the resolution passed by the quorum court on April 17.
“I don’t see it as necessary,” he said. “Essentially I think the resolution, it doesn’t ask for anything that’s not being done. It’s like, keep inappropriate content away from kids. Ok, it’s not in the children’s section. There was one book they had. I believe it’s Jack of Hearts Mother. It’s in the Young Adult section and you can blame the American Library Association if you want to, but that’s such a broad age range. A seventeen-year-old is not the same as a twelve-year-old. And that’s why the library doesn’t keep books for twelve-year-olds with books for seventeen-year-olds. It happens it’s the same section, but they are not together. And, to me, it’s such a non-issue and I think it is to most people, too, once you understand there’s already mechanisms in place. They keep stuff separate anyway. But the rest of the resolution doesn’t deal with that. So, if it were just the resolution, that’s one thing. But there is also already Act 372 that’s already going into place. The JPs kept saying ‘we are passing this resolution to bring us in line with Act 372. You don’t need to pass a resolution to be in-line with a state law. It just happens. Are you going to pass a resolution every time a law changes? It doesn’t make a lot of sense. So, in that regard, just procedurally, in terms of where the books are placed, it’s not needed. There was already a process at the library. There has been for twenty years. That was mentioned at the quorum court as well. For me, for a number of reasons, it was a waste of everyone’s time and effort. But I think it represents the best and worst to me. Because a resolution like that doesn’t come out of the blue. So the argument can be made, and it was, that some people just want certain books put where it needs to go, to not be in children’s hands. And nobody’s saying that that’s wrong. There are books a kid probably shouldn’t be reading. But that’s not where this is going. It’s a good foot in the door where, I think, we can already kind of see it going if you follow the Craighead County playbook. It just happens that now there is a playbook and we can move through it a lot faster. And it’s disingenuous when the defense is ‘why would you defend this material being in a kid’s hands’, because no-one’s going to defend it. That’s a non-starter. If the issue is ‘why are you bringing this up in the first place and where are you going next’, if it were just about that resolution and just about Act 372, they wouldn’t still be talking about it. We wouldn’t probably still be talking about it, but yet, here we are, a little bit like we are in the eye of the hurricane, right?”
In regards to banning books or change in funding for the library, Morgan responded, “For book banning, there’s never a reason. If we banned every book that we disagreed with, if we went after every text and piece of material we found offensive, we wouldn’t have much left. History does not look incredibly fondly on people that ban books, on people that want to remove any semblance of evidence that a different opinion exists. Even if you disagree with it, you need the evidence that it exists. People deserve to learn and form their own beliefs.”
On the subject of defunding, Morgan is opposed to cuts or defunding and related a story of when he was a young child of a single mother. The closest library was a full city away and going to it was like a field trip to him. “At home we did have a computer, but it was a clunky old thing. But at the library, having resources to those kind of things and those resources are beyond value. Those resources are there because of the funding they receive. If that funding, if the situation is like it was in Craighead County and the funding gets cut in half, those resources that are being used will be cut, and some people don’t know they are there. Libraries have been more than just books for a long time.”
Next: Point-of-view from proponents of the resolution
On April 17, the Saline County Quorum Court passed an ordinance suggesting the county libraries take measures to limit access to certain books in the children’s sections. The Saline County Library System has two locations – the Bob Herzfeld Memorial Library in Benton (which also serves as system headquarters) and the Mabel Boswell Memorial Library in Bryant. We contacted Mayor Tom Farmer of Benton and Mayor Allen Scott of Bryant. Each sat for a face-to-face interview at their respective City Hall.
Benton, Arkansas is the county seat for Saline County. It is also the largest city in the county with a population of 35,675 residents in 2021. The city covers 23.42 square miles.
Mayor Farmer is currently serving his second term in office. In 2018 he won in a three-candidate race without the need for a runoff, followed by a 2022 election in which he ran unopposed.
Mayor Farmer sat down for an interview on May 1. Also present during the interview was Matt Thibault, Marketing Director for the City of Benton. In a statement issued to this writer prior to our interview, Mayor Farmer expressed his support of the quorum court related to the resolution, stating he is “the grandparent of seven kids.”
“Thank you to the Quorum Court for taking into consideration all views of the people before they made a decision on how to protect our children. They had a hard decision to make but I truly believe they made the right decision. We have to protect our children. Our children are our most precious blessing we will ever receive and as adults we have a responsibility to protect them, so thank you to the quorum court for taking the actions they took.”
In specific reference to the resolution, Mayor Farmer stated that he wasn’t aware of it before it came up at the April 17 quorum court meeting. He also stated that he had not seen a video of the meeting that particular night. He also stated that “The resolution wasn’t about banning books, was it?”
When asked if he would support defunding or reducing funding for the library, Mayor Farmer responded, “Number one I don’t even know how the library is funded.” Regarding the banning of books, he said “I believe there’s age-appropriate books that should be displayed to the proper aged. You know, like my grandkids, I’ve got a six-year-old grandson. When I was in school there wasn’t but maybe 20 books for that age. I will say this though, the library is different now than what it was 50 years ago or 30 years ago or even 20. I didn’t know that the library checked out kayaks or fishing poles or chocolate fountains or cake pans. Or get a passport or help you with your GED. When you think of our library, and ours is completely different, when you think of a library you go in there, you get a book and you quietly sit down and you read. There’s no noise. Just a peaceful environment. Well, our library is, there’s things going on all the time.” He continued by saying, “It’s not just a place to go get books. That’s what impressed me most about the library.”
Bryant, Arkansas is the second largest city in Saline County with a population of 21,073 in 2021 covering an area of 20.58 square miles.
Mayor Scott is currently serving his second term as mayor. His first race in 2018 was where he defeated incumbent Mayor Jill Dabbs. In 2022, he defeated challenger Rhonda Sanders. Before running for mayor, he served six years as an elected member of the Bryant City Council.
Mayor Scott is currently serving his second term as mayor. His first race in 2018 was where he defeated incumbent Mayor Jill Dabbs. In 2022, he defeated challenger Rhonda Sanders. Before running for mayor, he served six years as an elected member of the Bryant City Council.
Regarding the resolution passed on April 17 by the quorum court, Mayor Scott says he was not contacted about it. “They did not contact me, but I will say I contacted my JP (Justice of the Peace) Justin Rue, me and my wife both, and expressed our thoughts and opinions on what he should do. And, honestly, I think that’s what he did, but, honestly, I didn’t check on the vote to see if he voted yea or nay on it. My thought was on that, and this is my thought on libraries in general, is they’re a great repository of information and they are a place where people can go to get that information free and look at it. I think the librarians already do a good job of putting age-appropriate books where they belong. If a parent does not want their child to look at that age-appropriate book, I think it’s up to the parent to make that decision, not quorum courts or state law.”
When asked if he had been contacted by anyone from the quorum court or county government contact him after the vote on the resolution, Mayor Scott responded, “No, not really. I had a lunch date with Mayor Farmer and (County) Judge Brumley a few days after that. We have a standing lunch date once a month and we talked about it. He (Judge Brumley) said it was a wild show. We (Bryant) had a couple of special meetings that night and I didn’t get to watch it, but when I got home my wife was watching it. She said it was really interesting, some of the comments.” He went on to say that he couldn’t recall anyone coming to him and commenting about the resolution. “I think people in Bryant understand that it’s a county library. It’s not governed by the city at all. We have no say in the operation of it. I’m grateful that it’s here, I’m glad that it’s here.”
Mayor Scott then returned to the topic of the resolution in question. “I’ve since understood after the fact of that meeting that the quorum court didn’t consult with the head librarian with the Saline County Library to formulate that resolution to make sure it met what it really needed to meet. I think that’s unfortunate because they could have made a better resolution and one that would actually be effective, I think, if they would have done that.”
Even though actions of the quorum court did not mention “book banning”, this phrase has been part of the local discussion among various individuals and groups. Mayor Scott talked about his thoughts on the subject.
“(Book banning) has already been around for years. People have been working on that and a god classic example of a book that I remember years ago was “Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie. No one had ever heard of that book until someone started making a hoopla about it and then it became a bestseller. It was the best thing I can imagine that would happen to him and that book. Honestly, I think that’s what happens a lot of times when people try to ban books. One, I think it’s ineffective and it’s wrong, because I don’t need somebody telling me what books I should or should not read, just like I should not tell somebody else what books they should or should not read. That’s my choice, my thoughts and my opinion. I like to read a wide variety of books. Some are really off-the-wall and some are just historical and fact, and that’s fine. But it’s my choice what I read and not anyone else’s.”
Throughout 2021, the Saline County Library sought feedback from residents, library visitors, elected officials and local industries to formulate a Strategic Plan for growth in the years 2022 through 2025. In the finished document, there is a quote from Mayor Scott that reads, “I would like to see the library push inclusivity more by reaching out to fringe population groups and the underserved areas of our community.” We asked him if he still stands by this statement.
“Yes, absolutely”, he said. “And that’s one of things as a mayor that I’ve been trying to do as well because the fringe groups really don’t have a voice in city government. And I understand that from some of them because they are afraid of city government. They may be marginalized, they may be Hispanic and they may feel like sometimes they’re not welcomed, which is unfortunate, because as far as I’m concerned everybody is welcome and everybody has a voice and they’re more than welcome to come give that voice. Just like, if they are residents and they meet the qualifications, run for office, run for council.”
Finally, we asked Mayor Scott for his view on cutting back funding or defunding the library.
“I personally don’t think they should because if they do that, they are going to have to reduce services. That will hit those marginalized populations. People rely on the library to check out a book or work on a computer, write a resume, different things like that. Without those services there, those people won’t be able to do that. It will be a snowball effect, I think. I definitely think funding should not be reduced.”
The April 17 meeting of the Saline County Quorum Court included a resolution to suggest the county library system “ensure that materials contained within the children’s section of the library are subject matter and age appropriate.”
Justices of the Peace Jim Whitley (District 10) and Clint Chism (District 11) were co-sponsors of the resolution. We reached out to both of them, as well as Saline County Judge Matt Brumley for interviews. As of this posting, only JP Chism agreed to a face-to-face conversation. Initial contact with each began via email on April 24.
Judge Brumley left a voicemail with this writer on May 1, followed by an email from him on May 4 with the following statement: “I want to first thank you for reaching out. As I communicated in the voice mail I left for you, I am going to respectfully decline an interview. Your questions on ‘my stance on book banning, defunding the library or cutting funding’ are subjects that have not been addressed nor entertained by Saline County Government. My team and I remain laser focused on county government efforts that positively affect our citizens.”
As of 4:30 p.m. on May 8, no response from JP Whitley has been received. Attempts to secure an interview or a statement from JP Whitley through a third party were also unsuccessful.
JP Chism was interviewed at his place of business, Rooster’s Main Street Barber Shop in Benton, on April 25.
Chism spoke of why he became involved with the resolution.
“I’ve been pretty vocal on Facebook and I’m going to tell you why.”, said Chism. “Because of the rumors and everything that’s been flying around, I’m trying to set the record straight. All that I can speak of, and I’m not speaking for all of the Justices of Peace, I’m going to speak for myself and what I did on the resolution before the quorum court. I can’t speak for those guys but, you know, we’ve got some good quorum court members. We’ve got some guys that are common sense and they’re going to vote their conscience. This is not a political thing, we’ve been accused of camaraderie, of always voting with one another. The quorum court is public record. There’s no secrets that go on up there.”
Chism talked about the first time he became aware of the book issue.
“At the end of the March (Quorum Court) meeting, a lady stood. She had three or four books, I didn’t count them, and she said I got books here that I went over to the public library and checked out. I thought you might want to be aware of what’s in these books. When the meeting was over, my recollection is that me and Jimmy Whitley, we caught her before she left. I wanted to see what she was talking about. I was concerned.” Chism recalls. “When I looked at the books and read some of what was in it, I was like ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. I had no idea.’”
He continued, “The next meeting (April), Jimmy called me and asked would I like to sponsor this resolution. I told him I wanted to see it first. I won’t put my name on something I ain’t seen. So he sent me the resolution that he had drawn up and I said, hey man, put me on it.”
Chism spoke on the confusion and information that has spread about the resolution.
“I don’t mind saying this. I feel like some of this is my fault and I’m going to tell you why. The quorum court appoints members on the library board. When one of them goes off, the librarian always sends a request for who they think should be put on in their place. To be honest with you, we have a liaison for the library. I’m not a sheriff. I’m not a county clerk. I don’t know how to run that place down there. I’m not an assessor. So you have to put a certain amount of trust in people, until they prove otherwise. Our main job on the quorum court is the budget of the county. We oversee the budget of the county and take care of the budget every year at the first of the year. Just make sure the ‘I’s are dotted and the ‘t’s are crossed. That’s our job. It’s not my job to run the jail or the library. So I have to put a certain amount of trust in these people. I’m not saying I don’t ever check into this or that, but for the most part, it’s done on a trust basis. So I trusted the library. I would have never thought that was in there. But what I’m saying when I say ‘my fault’, I think we need to take a bit of the fault, if you want to say it, because we’ve appointed these people on the board. I would think maybe they know what’s in there. Maybe they don’t. These are not sex education books that we are talking about. If you can’t print it in your blog (Common Man Gazette) or in the Democrat Gazette, that ain’t good.”
Chism then discussed feedback he has received.
“When this first started, I can’t tell you how many teachers have gotten hold of me. Either called me, emailed me, and I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to tell them we are talking about anal sex here. I didn’t want to tell some retired teacher. I just didn’t.” he said. “And now, I think it was a mistake at the quorum court meeting that night. Matt (County Judge Brumley) said ‘hey, we’re not gonna read that up here. There’s some children in here’. I didn’t think about that, that’s good. But then, when I walked out of there and all the backlash happened I thought, you know what, surely these people don’t know what we are talking about or they wouldn’t stand up for this. If they are, I’m totally surprised.”
Finally, Chism spoke about why a resolution was needed in light of the upcoming law, SB 81, which became Act 372, that addresses the same issue.
“I don’t know how many other quorum court members knew about SB 81, but I didn’t know anything about it. I’m not gonna lie to you and say ‘Yes I knew all about it’ but I didn’t. When I did find out about SB 81, I got a copy of it. I read it. I understand some of it. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t understand some of it but I’m going to get (State Senator Kim) Hammer to explain it to me. I think I understand the gist of it.” Chism said. “The best way I know how to explain why I’m voting for it is that I got to thinking that, if my children were little and somebody threw a Hustler magazine in my front yard, and this might not be a good scenario, and my kids play outside, how long am I going to let that lay there if I see it before I go pick it up and throw it in the trash. And when that came to question (before the quorum court) I said, hey, this isn’t a political thing and I can honestly say that the people up there (quorum court) they just want to do the right thing. To me it’s about protecting the children. This is a personal thing with me. Children can be damaged by learning things too young. Their minds aren’t mature enough to be able to handle some of this. This isn’t sex education as far as how do you keep from getting pregnant. Some kids might be able to look at some of this and go on about their merry way and never think another thing about it. But you take some kids, and maybe some kids from a good home, and maybe some kids are living in an unsafe home that isn’t stable, maybe one parent, maybe they’ve been molested. I know these are all assuming, and then they go over there and they get their minds and hands on this kind of stuff and then maybe find this acceptance from somebody they aren’t getting at home maybe. I just saying it can be harmful to these children. They’ve got this stuff in front of them and learning stuff way before their minds are ready for it. I personally know some people that has happened to, some of them still trying to dig out of it and that’s been years ago. I know that for a fact. But I’ve also talked to some social workers about some of this stuff. That’s how the resolution came about.”
When asked if there had been a lack of due diligence by the quorum court with the library staff before voting on the resolution, Chism responded, “I know where they are going with this, but when I read what I read, I didn’t have any questions for them. I don’t have anything against anyone over at the library. I don’t know the librarian or the workers over there. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t have anything bad to say about them. But when I read what I read, I didn’t have any questions. What’s this doing in front of our children, grandchildren? To me it has no business there. I can only speak for myself. This has nothing to do with LBGTQ. This has nothing to do with race. Now, I will say this. If it’s two gay guys or two women that’s got sexual content, it needs to be moved. But if it’s just two mommas raising a family or two daddies raising a family, that ain’t none of my business. If it doesn’t have sexual content in it, leave it where it’s at. I don’t have a problem with that. That’s the world we live in today. But my only questions for them would be why is this in here?”
In response to defunding the library or book bans, Chism said, “I would never ban books. I don’t believe in it. I don’t believe banning books is right. I would never defund the library. There’s a lot of people get a lot of good out of that library. There’s a lot of people who don’t have access to Wi-Fi, internet, computers. That’s how all these kids have to do their homework now. Once that’s gone and those kids don’t have that where they can go to, hey, I don’t know what would happen to them. That’s a bad thing all around to start talking about defunding the library. The quorum court never, ever mentioned anything about banning books or defunding the library inside of meetings or outside of meetings. Never heard that. Like I said, I can’t talk for all quorum court members, I don’t know where all of their heads are, but I don’t think the majority of them would be for defunding the library.”
Chism was born and raised in Benton and Saline County. He attended Benton Public Schools. “I was a Bulldog and then a Panther”, said Chism, referring to the mascots for West Side Junior High and Benton High School, respectively. His early work experiences ranged from working at Jacuzzi in Little Rock, to Pinecrest Cemetery to local construction work. Eventually, he was employed at Saline Memorial Hospital in the maintenance department for 20 years. He then partnered with his uncle as a paint contractor for six years. “I’ve worn many different hats.” he said.
The work was hard and the days were long. “One day I came home and my wife, Denise, said, ‘You’re killing yourself. Why don’t you go do something you enjoy? You’ve talked about being a barber ever since I’ve known you. Why don’t you think about that?’” Chism was convinced. After completing Barber School in 2006, he opened his shop in Downtown Benton and has been there ever since. With a location convenient to the courthouse, his shop has become a bit of a hangout for locals with lively conversations on a wide variety of topics ranging from politics to religion. He had plans to cut back to two days a week, but his grandson will finish Barber School in June and join him. Chism plans to turn the shop over to him and eventually cut back to one or two days a week while his grandson works full time.
This is Chism’s first venture into politics and public office. “If you would have told me ten years ago that I would be holding elected position in Saline County, I would have said you are crazy.” he said. However, Chism says he felt the time was right to get involved and is grateful to those voters in his district and the faith they have shown him.
Next: The mayors of Benton and Bryant are interviewed.
(This is the first in a series of six articles about placement of books in the Saline County Library)
Gaining an understanding of the Saline County Quorum Court, its function, elected officials within and guidelines each follow is fundamental to the story surrounding the resolution passed during their April 17, 2023 meeting. The following description of a quorum court is taken from the Arkansas Counties Justices of the Peace 2022 Procedures Manual. A description is also available at the Saline County government website.
“The Legislative body of county government is called the Quorum Court and is composed of 9, 11, 13, or 15 members depending on the population of the county. These officers representing districts within the county meet each month, more often if necessary, to conduct county business and review ordinances and resolutions for passage. The county judge is the presiding officer over the Quorum Court without a vote, but with the power of veto. This veto can be overridden with a 3/5 vote of the total membership of the Quorum Court. (ACA 14-14-402, 14-14-904, and 14-14-912) As provided by Amendment No. 55 of the Arkansas Constitution, a county government acting through its Quorum Court may exercise local legislative authority not expressly prohibited by the Constitution or by law for the affairs of the county. Some limitations are: The Quorum Court cannot declare any act a felony (felonies are covered by the State Criminal Code); Quorum Court may exercise no authority unrelated to county affairs. (ACA 14-14-801) The Quorum Court may exercise the following powers, but are not limited to: A) the levy of taxes in manner prescribed by law; B) Appropriate public finds for the expenses of the county in a manner prescribed by ordinances; C) Preserve the peace and order and secure freedom from dangerous or noxious activities; provided, however, that no act may be declared a felony; D) for any public purpose, contract, or join with any other county, or with any political sub-division or with the United States; E) create, consolidate, separate, revise or abandon any elected office or offices except during the term thereof; provided ,however, that a majority of those voting on the question at a general election have approved said action; F) fix the number and compensation of deputies and county employees; G) fix the compensation of each county officer with a minimum and maximum to be determined by law; H) fill vacancies in elected county offices; I) provide for any service or performance of any function relating to county affairs; J) to exercise other powers, not inconsistent with law, necessary for effective administration of authorized services and functions. (ACA 14-14-801)”
The thirteen JPs and the districts they represent can be found by clicking this link.
In Saline County, Justices of the Peace also serve on two committees related to the duties they serve above. These committees are the Finance Committee, and the Public Works & Safety Committee. It is within these committees that resolutions and ordinances first develop before being presented in a Quorum Court meeting. All thirteen JPs comprise the membership of each committee.
We contacted Saline County Judge Matt Brumley and Saline County Attorney Will Gruber to describe the process of how an ordinance and/or a resolution starts and the difference between the two. Judge Brumley directed Gruber to answer.
CMG: Will you explain the difference between a resolution and an ordinance?
Gruber: “In a nutshell, a resolution is a statement of policy which expresses an opinion as to matters of county affairs, which do not compel executive action. Versus, generally speaking, an ordinance is a county law that sets out the processes and parameters for conduct and actions within the county.”
CMG: What process is followed prior to an ordinance and/or a resolution is placed on the agenda?
Gruber:“Generally, the County Judge or Justice of the Peace (JP) has an idea for an ordinance or resolution. The County Judge or JP discusses the idea with relevant county employees such as the County Attorney and/or Comptroller. The county employees research to determine if there are any legal, financial, or other concerns. The county employees collaborate with the JP and County Judge to avoid legal or financial risks and help ensure the ordinance or resolution accomplishes the goal sought. Once drafted, the ordinance or resolution is approved by the sponsoring JP and discussed with the County Judge to ensure that there are no procedural or administrative issues that could arise. If there are procedural or administrative concerns, those are addressed with the sponsor. At that point, if the relevant elected officials are comfortable, it would be placed on the agenda.”
CMG: How are resolutions/ordinances written? Is there a standard template that is followed?
Gruber: “Typically, it is drafted by the County Attorney with assistance from the Comptroller or other relevant county employee. There is no standard template.”
Specific to the resolution concerning library books that was passed on April 17, 2023, we asked the following question.
CMG: In your recollection, how did the whole process work for the April 17, 2023 resolution regarding access to books at the county libraries come about?
Gruber: “It worked as discussed in my answer to question two (2).”
The resolution, sponsored by JPs Chism and Whitley, passed by a voice vote of 11-2. JPs voting in favor of the resolution: Bisbee, Hatcher, Howell, Rue, Bellinger, Curtis, Albares, Engel, Whitley, Chism, Walters. JPs voting against the resolution: Keck, Billingsley.
As noted in the resolution, the impetus of the language in Act 372 recently passed by the Arkansas Legislature will bring changes to how libraries proceed with certain books. A copy of the new law can be found by clicking this link.
The first mention of an issue related to the Saline County Library is found in the minutes of the March 6, 2023, meeting of the Public Works & Safety Committee and Finance Committee. The meetings of these two committees are held back-to-back. At the end, comments from those residents of the county who ask to speak to the JPs are held. During this meeting, an individual spoke on “comments regarding the Saline County Library”. This same individual addressed the JPs during the March 30 meeting of the quorum court.
Next: We interview elected officials at the county level
Recently, the subject of books in the children’s and teen area of the county libraries, what they contain, how they are displayed and what type of access is available to them has been a topic of considerable conversation in Saline County. While residents of the county may have heard about the issue, they may not know where it started and the actual function of the Saline County Quorum Court.
A description of the Quorum Court can be found at the website for Saline County government, www.SalineCounty.org. The following is taken from the Quorum Court section of the website. “The Justice of the Peace is an elected official in county government. Saline County has 13 Justices of the Peace who serve on the Saline County Quorum Court, which is the legislative body of county government. The Quorum Court meets twice a month to conduct county business which includes reviewing Ordinances and Resolutions for passage. The County Judge is the presiding officer over the Quorum Court. The Quorum Court may exercise the following powers, but are not limited to: levying of taxes in a manner as prescribed by law; appropriating public finds for the expenses of the county in a manner as prescribed by ordinances; establishing the number and compensation of elected officials and county employees; providing for any service or performance of any function relating to county affairs; to exercise any other powers necessary for effective administration of authorized services and functions.”
The first moment in which the library book matter came to public attention at a Saline County Quorum Court meeting was on March 13, 2023. A resident addressed the quorum court about books at the Saline County Library. Her comments begin at the 15 minute, 16 second mark (15:16). Click the link below to watch video of the meeting.
On April 17, 2023, during a meeting of the Saline County Quorum Court, the Justices of Peace voted to suspend the rules and add a resolution titled “A Resolution Requesting the Saline County Library Ensure That Materials Contained Within the Children’s Section of the Library are Subject Matter and Age Appropriate“. A link to the agenda for the meeting can be found here: https://www.salinecounty.org/plugins/show_image.php?id=2997
Discussion by quorum court members, their vote, and public comment can be found at the link below to the County YouTube page. The part of the meeting pertinent to the resolution begins at the 26 minute, 49 second mark (26:49). Public comment was allowed by alternating views of those in favor followed by those opposed for approximately 80 minutes. In order to speak, individuals must sign a request to comment beforehand.
The courtroom in which the meeting was held was filled to capacity. A line to enter the building stretched down to the street and around a corner. The issue was one which those in favor of the resolution before the court as well as those opposed felt strongly.
In the days since the meeting, we have contacted several of the individuals and groups involved in the discussion of the resolution in order to obtain their particular point-of-view as well as their background and how they came to this issue.
Coming soon: The people and groups contacted, who was interviewed and what they said.