Regional Public Journalism
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Measure to dissolve Dayton’s library won’t be on fall ballot

Two little girls in pink and white shirts sit on plush red and blue kid-sized chairs with their caretaker, who is in a white shirt. They are in a library with windows, books and a TV with a cartoon character on it.
Courtney Flatt
Northwest News Network
Kids and caretakers watch a "Madeline" DVD in the basement of the Columbia County Library on a hot Tuesday afternoon.

A measure to dissolve a small library in southeastern Washington will not be on the November ballot. The decision comes after a hearing Wednesday in Columbia County’s Superior Court.

After more than a year fraught with book challenges and the specter of the loss of Columbia County’s only library, Superior Court Commissioner Julie Karl ruled in favor of not allowing a measure to dissolve the library to make it onto the ballot.

“This court is cognizant of the impact of this decision on all concerned and its reach beyond the borders of this city, county or even this state,” Karl said to a packed courthouse.

In her recollection, the courthouse had never been so packed, said Elise Severe, chair of the local political action committee Neighbors United for Progress and defendant in the lawsuit.

“To have so many people there, holding their breath, just waiting for their answer at the end. It’s a day I’ll never forget,” Severe said in an interview.

The morning after the hearing, Severe said her daughter came out from her bedroom.

“We said our good mornings, and she said, ‘Mom, did you keep the library open?’ And I said, ‘Yup, we sure did,’” Severe said.

The fight might not be over yet. In a public post to Facebook, Jessica Ruffcorn, who has helped head up the library district’s dissolution, said the community has been activated and friendships have been forged.

“We didn’t work this hard for change to let it end here like this. We will continue to fight to protect the children of this community. We will continue to fight for our taxing district to remain accountable to this community,” Ruffcorn wrote.

Earlier this month, the judge had temporarily banned the measure from the ballot for two weeks.

If the measure to dissolve the rural library district had been placed on the ballot and succeeded, librarians said it would have been the first time in the nation that a public library had been dissolved following book challenges.

Those challenges started more than a year ago, with some people claiming books in the children’s and young adult sections of the library were “graphic” or “obscene.” When those books weren’t banned, they petitioned to dissolve the Columbia County Rural Library District.

Since then, the library has moved the young adult nonfiction section into the adult fiction section. Librarians also now allow parents to add permissions to their children’s library cards. They’d moved the “parenting section” to a larger bookcase that includes the “first conversations'' section, which includes books on puberty, consent, bodies and sex education. They also placed dividers around the young adult section.

If the district had been dissolved, all of the material would have gone back to the state, and the historic library building would have been returned to the City of Dayton. The library had been run by the city for decades, but library supporters said it was falling into disrepair in the 1990s. So, in 2005, supporters helped put the founding of the rural library district to a vote. At the time, 59% of rural county voters approved the district.

The City of Dayton voted to annex into the district in 2009.

Now, Proposition 2 would have only allowed people who live in unincorporated parts of the county to decide the library’s fate. Importantly, Karl said after reading all the court documents “multiple times,” it didn’t make sense for people who live in the county to vote on something that affects so much of the city.

“We did away with taxation without representation a long time ago,” she said.

As of last month, the county auditor’s office reported 1,076 active voters in the unincorporated parts of the county, with 1,707 active voters in Dayton, where the library stands. The town of Starbuck, with 98 voters, would not get to vote on the matter because it has not been annexed into the rural library district.

Karl said the library provides critical services to the county that would disproportionately affect the poorest members of the community.

During his testimony, Ric Jacobs, the attorney for the defendants Neighbors United for Progress, Elise Severe and Gerald Kaiser, said allowing Proposition 2 on the ballot would have been a “stain on the county’s reputation.”

Jacobs and Karl said the library does more than provide books. It is also a cooling and warming center for the homeless. People can use its computers, printers and fax machines.

According to court documents, the library “was a key reason (many long-time Dayton residents) were able to get a college education because it was the only place with application materials, financial resource information or computers.”

At the beginning of the hearing, plaintiff Jessica Ruffcorn was dismissed from the case, Karl said, because of accusations of fraud, which she said she “denounces.” In a statement posted to Facebook, Ruffcorn said that meant she couldn’t speak up against the defendants or speak for the ballot measure.

“In taking the (Neighbors United for Progress’s) pleadings at face value, and ruling against the ballot measure, I believe that (Karl) took the only voice of unincorporated voters away and displaced them for other voters and non-voters,” Ruffcorn wrote.

In his testimony, Columbia County prosecuting attorney Dale Slack said it would have been improper for the county or the auditor’s office to make a decision about the constitutionality of Proposition 2.

The defendants had argued that the state rule was inconsistent – allowing the City of Dayton to annex the library but not allowing those residents to vote on a potential dissolution.

“I can wonder and I can guess all day until I’m blue in the face whether this is a good statute or not,” Slack said at the hearing. “But at the end of the day, nobody cares what I think, and nobody should because it’s not my constitutional duty to tell anybody whether a statute is constitutional or not. That is solely the duty of this court.”

Court documents also claim signatures for the petition to get the measure on the ballot were collected fraudulently. The documents say multiple witnesses said they were told false statements to sign the petition – and insulted if they did not sign.

At the hearing, Karl said people “willfully and deliberately engaged in fraud.” Karl said the first time the signatures came in, more than two-thirds were invalid.

“There should be an investigation into the potential criminal acts engaged in to collect these signatures needed for the petition,” Karl said.

General Election ballots were set to go out to military and overseas voters this Saturday.

Courtney Flatt is a Richland-based multi-media correspondent for Northwest Public Broadcasting and the Northwest News Network focusing on environmental, natural resources and energy issues in the Northwest.