Crawford County approves more money for library censorship legal fees

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 531 views 

The Crawford County Quorum Court approved another $112,000 to pay legal fees to defend against lawsuits alleging unconstitutional library censorship, bringing the total appropriated for the matter to almost $245,000.

The quorum court approved the appropriation from the county general fund as a budget item in an ordinance to amend the 2023 budget for various departments at the regular board meeting Monday (Sept. 18). Crawford County Judge Chris Keith requested $112,025.14 from the county general fund to cover legal expenses for 2023.

In a memo included in the agenda, Keith said the funds will cover legal expenses in Act 689 Litigation, the First Amendment Litigation and the final invoice from the Sales Tax.

“We just received 3 invoices (totaling) $75,025.14 that need to be paid. I am adding an extra $50,000 to this request that will hopefully carry us to the end of the year. We have $13,000 left from the original $60,000 we appropriated in June to move forward on the lawsuits,” the memo said.

The Crawford County Quorum Court approved a $60,000 appropriation for anticipated legal costs to defend against two lawsuits alleging unconstitutional library censorship in June. The budget item approved June 20 was to pay for attorney Gentry Wahlmeier and others to defend the county, county judge, Quorum Court members and county library board members against the two lawsuits. Wahlmeier, an attorney for the county, had advised the library board against its book ban and relocation actions.

In a June 5 memo to the Quorum Court regarding a budget allocations from the judge’s budget, Keith requested $60,000 to cover the legal expenses. The memo states that $15,000 of this will be paid to Little Rock-based PPGMR Law Firm as a retainer for co-council. Those funds came from the county general fund, Keith said. No funds for the defense will be taken from Crawford County Library Board Fund, he said.

On June 2, several Arkansas libraries and library associations filed a lawsuit in the Fayetteville Division of the Western District Court of Arkansas against Crawford County officials and state prosecuting attorneys to overturn Act 372. The Act is primarily a measure allowing books in public libraries to be banned or relocated. U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Brooks granted a preliminary injunction July 29 against Act 689 implementation, which was set to go into effect Aug. 1.

The June 2 lawsuit is the second to be filed attempting to block libraries from censoring books. Attorney Brian Meadors filed a federal complaint May 30 against book censorship actions by the Crawford County Public Library. The Crawford County Library has in recent months approved the removal and relocation of books largely because of objections from citizens to LGBTQ content.

The controversy began in November 2022 when Tammi Hamby and her husband Dr. Jeffrey Hamby, a Van Buren family physician, spearheaded a campaign against LBGQT+ books being available through the library system, and then Library Director Diedre Grzymala’s book display of LBGQT+ children’s books set up at the Van Buren Public Library. Hamby was appointed to the Crawford County Library Board by Keith and named the board chair after Jamie Balkman, former chair, and two other board members resigned after a contentious Quorum Court meeting in December.

Gryzmala resigned with a $40,687.50 severance deal Feb. 21. Eva White was appointed interim director during a special called meeting Feb. 24. White was the library director for Crawford County from 1999 to 2012 and then again from 2013 to January 2021.

The appropriations to deal with the entire library matter come at a time when Crawford County is looking at losing three months of sales tax revenue because of a reporting error.

According to the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration (DFA), there will be a three-month period – October through December – when the 1% county-wide sales tax typically collected in Crawford County will not be collected.

On May 12, 2015, Crawford County voters approved extension of a 1% sales and use tax and scheduled the tax to expire on Sept. 30, 2023, according to the DFA. On May 24, 2022, the tax was approved by the voters to be extended until May 30, 2031. However, there was an error in reporting that continuance to the state, and in July retailers were notified of a change in the amount of sales tax that should be charged for sales in the county.

Keith learned after talking with the DFA that the county had not filed necessary paperwork regarding the sales tax election in 2022. In accordance with Arkansas tax law, prior to an election a city or county may provide the DFA with proof of publication and the mayor or judge’s proclamation of election results at least 90 days prior to the effective date of the tax. Because the tax was set to end on Sept. 30 prior to the 2022 election, county officials had to notify the DFA by July 3 of the election results.

Though the paperwork has now been filed, the state will not resume collection of the tax until Jan. 1.

The sales tax generated a combined $3.53 million in October, November and December 2022, according to DFA spokesman Scott Hardin. Keith estimates the lost revenue around $2.5 million. The sales tax revenue is distributed to the county and the nine municipalities in the county based on population, with the county getting about 46% of the total collection and the municipalities getting the remaining 54%.