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Macon County Commissioners decide to stay in Fontana Regional Library system with proposed changes to the regional agreement

The Macon County Commissioners meeting was over capacity with community members to discuss the public library's membership in the Fontana Regional Library System.
Bob Scott
The Macon County Commissioners meeting was over capacity with community members to discuss the public library's membership in the Fontana Regional Library System.

The conflict over Macon County’s participation in the Fontana Library System reached a détente last night. After a closed session just before midnight the Macon County Commissioners shared a statement that county managers from the three counties in the Fontana Regional Library System - Jackson, Swain and Macon - agreed to stay in the system but update the governing agreement.

The compromise decision followed months of controversy, mostly pertaining to items in the collection some community members found objectionable. About 45 people spoke at the commissioners meeting. Residents were asked to share their name and address before speaking.

Those in favor of remaining in the Fontana Regional Library System wore black with fans and buttons reading “I support the Freedom to Read” with each side occupying about half of the court room. The fire marshal was on hand at the meeting and told the crowd that about 40 people needed to leave because the room was over maximum capacity.

Opponents of the regional system spoke against materials in the library’s collection, particularly items about LGBTQ+ topics, and other pieces of “pornography” at the library. Jim Gaston, a Macon County resident, has been outspoken at past library board and commission meetings. At Tuesday’s meeting, he called for compromise, noting the financial benefits of staying in the Fontana System but continued to question the materials.

Macon County resident Jim Gaston spoke at the commissioners meeting.
Lilly Knoepp
Macon County resident Jim Gaston spoke at the commissioners meeting.

"Why would seemingly intellectual adult continue to sexualize children and confuse them with unscientific biology just because it suddenly became fashionable in this nation,” Gaston said. “Our commissioners obviously want what is best for the kids – discussions of skatepark, high school, ADA playground, library – however there is only so much tax money and we don’t need higher taxes without better efficiency.”

Susan Schlatter, a Macon County resident and proponent of the library, spoke directly to Commissioner Danny Antoine about his role in the library discussion.

"Mr. Antoine, you were quoted as saying that any child can check out books at the library without parental consent. To me that sounds like more of a parenting problem than a library problem,” Slater said.

“Can you tell me, what do you think my intentions are with the library?” Antoine responded.

“Quite honestly, Mr. Antoine I’m not certain... I was at the Chamber of Commerce awards when you received the 2019 citizen of the year award,” Schlatter said. “I was there on the stage applauding your achievements and accomplishments for my town, my county. To see the picture of you in the paper holding up a book and ranting took me a little bit aback and I’m just not quite certain where you came from here to there.”

Antoine said his life work was working with children and protecting children.

“The only thing that I brought up before the media turned this into a circus was not to allow pornography to fall into the hands of kids,” Antoine said.

Schlatter said she also didn’t want children having access to age-inappropriate materials but that the responsibility rests with the parent, not the library.

The exchange was emblematic of the conflict that has divided community members for many months.

During the commissioner meeting, Bill Dyar, chairman of the Macon County Library Board of Trustees, provided a 5-page report to the commissioners about the impacts of leaving the Fontana Regional Library System.

Everyone won’t be happy regardless the outcome of this county meeting, Dyer said.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m convinced that neither remaining in Fontana Regional Library will resolve all of our disagreements and difficulties,” he said.

The county board recommended that the commissioners not leave the Fontana Regional Library System with their “strongest endorsement.”

“The Trustees feel that the effect of withdrawal is financially staggering and unduly burdensome with absolutely no corresponding benefit to the citizens of our community or the library patrons,” Dyar said.

Macon County resident Susan Schlatter speaks to Commissioner Danny Antoine about his position on the Fontana Regional Library System from the audience during public comment.
Lilly Knoepp
Macon County resident Susan Schlatter speaks to Commissioner Danny Antoine about his position on the Fontana Regional Library System from the audience during public comment.

In an unprecedented move, the county library board would be willing to take recommendations from the county commissioners about the library in the future, he said.

Supporters of the library system commented on the need for services provided by the Fontana Regional Library System and the damage that censorship can do to society.

Nearly five hours into the meeting, Heather Johnson, an Otto resident and great-granddaughter of Maude Shope, spoke about how Shope was interviewed by Foxfire Museum students about her life as an Appalachian woman.

“She said specifically that she believed in being honest with young people about sex and she regretted her ignorance about the subject as a young woman,” Johnson. “You can read it in Foxfire.”
Johnson said she often takes her children to the library and that representation is important.

“I teach my child that all people are children of God, and just because you are different than I does not mean that you are not valuable and valid,” said Johnson. “Some kids are queer, and those kids deserve to have books about them as much as any child or young adult or grown person has a right to see themselves represented in a book. Books are there to tell all sorts of stories.”

Throughout the meeting, the county commissioners explained that support for leaving the Fontana Regional Library System on the commission had been the opinion of some of the commissioners – not a statement by the entire body.

Folks in support of the Fontana Regional Library System passed out buttons and fans emblazoned with the phrase, "I support the freedom to read."
Lilly Knoepp
Folks in support of the Fontana Regional Library System passed out buttons and fans emblazoned with the phrase, "I support the freedom to read."

County Commissioner John Shearl said that he had not spoken about his position in the past but he supports segregating some materials in the collection.

“My deal with this library issue is that these books should be in age-appropriated places. These children should have library cards with their ages color-coded,” Shearl said.

After more than six hours, the commissioners moved to a closed session. North Carolina Open Meetings law requires all meetings be open and transparent except in ten specific instances. The law also requires the presiding officer of a meeting to give a reason for a closed session.

The county attorney Eric Ridenour said the commissioners went into closed session to address four of the 10 topics: consultation with their attorney only on matters that are attorney-client privileged; to discuss the location or expansion of a business; to discuss the position of the body in negotiating price or terms of a contract to acquire real property or employee compensation; and to discuss personnel matters. They emerged about 40 minutes later, announcing the decision about library participation.

“It was unanimously agreed that the regional agreement is beneficial to all three counties and their citizens but improvement is needed in the areas of parental empowerment and governance of the Fontana Regional Library System,” Chairman Paul Higdon said.

Higdon said the counties would focus on two main sections of the agreement: giving parents greater ability to set restrictions over what materials their minor children can check out and reevaluating the structure and authority of the local library boards and the regional board.

The timeline for the updated proposal is mid to late August, Higdon said.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.