Tony Powell felt that his efforts to speak on library neutrality were “shut down” by council during Tuesday night’s meeting.Julia Sacco, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

After being denied the chance to speak to town councillors last week, one of the leaders of a community group upset about the circumstances surrounding the firing of NOTL’s chief librarian got his wish Tuesday night.

However, any references to the dismissal of Cathy Simpson were quickly declared off-limits by Coun. Gary Burroughs, who was chairing the town’s committee of the whole meeting.

But Tony Powell was encouraged to offer comments about the need for library neutrality, the idea that libraries should embrace a wide range of books and viewpoints, even though some people might find them offensive.

During his presentation and in an interview afterward, Powell said he wants the town to ask integrity commission Ted McDermott to investigate the circumstances of Simpson’s firing.

“This all smells,” he said.

“The woman stands up and says there should be library neutrality. It’s right in line with the library’s own policies. All she did is support exactly what she’s supposed to,” Powell added. 

The town plans to replace departed library board member Graham Bailey and Powell wants to ensure that whoever is appointed to the post supports the principles of library neutrality.

Powell said repeatedly that he felt “shut down” by council when he tried to provide context about Simpson’s firing.

She was let go in March over her op-ed column about Freedom to Read Week was published in The Lake Report. 

The column sparked some complaints from residents and library staff. Some employees reportedly threatened to quit.

However, Powell’s group has gathered nearly 800 names on an online petition supporting library neutrality.

“It’s a little disappointing that from the beginning, (the town has) tried to shut down every presentation,” Powell told The Lake Report afterward. 

Last week he asked to speak to council as part of a “non-agenda delegation,” but town clerk Grant Bivol said the library board is autonomous and doesn’t report to council, so Powell’s presentation about the library would be outside the jurisdiction of council.

“Which is a load of nonsense. The library board serves at the pleasure of council,” Powell said. 

This week, because the library board appointment was on council’s agenda, Powell was permitted to address councillors as an “agenda delegation.”

His presentation documents were not distributed to councillors in advance, but will be now after Burroughs insisted that council members be able to read them.

Powell said it seemed council was “determined to shut down anything that would embarrass the library board.”

When speaking at council, Powell mentioned the termination of Simpson multiple times and was reprimanded by Burroughs. 

“The library board needs to believe that the library is not a mouthpiece for any ideology or any point of view. That is critical,” Powell said, adding that this was abandoned when Simpson was fired. 

“Mr. Powell, you were instructed that we are not discussing the departure,” Burroughs said.

Powell argued that with a new library board member to be appointed, the background surrounding Simpson’s termination provides important context.

Burroughs again cautioned him, “We  still don’t allow personal issues to be brought up that are not part of this council’s responsibility.”  

Powell made it clear he felt council was being unfair.

“Well, it’s nice that you’re shutting me down. I think that’s improper,” he said.

Powell then continued with his presentation, listing some of the fundamental principles that a future library board member should believe in. 

He added that the individual should have some persuasive power, in order to avoid what happened to Simpson.

It is clear that Simpson was pilloried because of a differing ideology, he said. 

Powell emphasized that the issue of library neutrality will not end with his presentation to council, especially with almost 800 signatures on the group’s petition in support of neutrality.

“It’s not going to fall off the table and it’ll be interesting to see who they do appoint,” he said.

Meanwhile, the town will begin a process to solicit applications for the vacant library board position.

By Julia Sacco, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on May 16, 2024 at 11:43

This item reprinted with permission from   The Lake Report   Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
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