Commissioners Being “Disruptors” with the Library

The usual suspects showed up to speak in favor of Mike Pelfrey’s petition to withdraw from the Josephine County Community Library District during the December 6 Weekly Business Session of the County Commissioners. The county’s hard-right folks who show up regularly at city or county meetings to protest all things hinting of liberalism or taxes, were there to let the community know this issue wasn’t really about whether or not some obscure state statute allows the Pelfreys to opt out of the Library District. This was part of their on-going effort to keep Josephine County conservative even if it means depriving the community of nice things.

Commission Chair Herman Baertschiger and Commissioner John West listened politely to both sides of the matter but predictively voted to approve the petition even though there were more people at the meeting who opposed it than those who spoke for it. Commissioner Dan DeYoung voted no. 

Pelfrey and Baertschiger set the stage the day before by calling in to KMED Radio’s Bill Meyer Show. It was obvious Baertschiger had already made up his mind to vote for the petition. Actually, if you listened to the commissioners during last week’s Legal Counsel meeting, that was already obvious as West and Baertschiger discussed the matter as if they’d discovered the key to getting rid of all the pesky taxes they’ve complained about for years.

During the 6 a.m. hour December 5, Pelfrey said his wife got the idea for the petition after attending Board meetings were the Commission approved people’s petitions to opt into the library district if they hadn’t been included within the original map. Pelfrey said his wife wondered if people could opt in, why can’t they opt out? He said they have a house on the river in Grants Pass where they get no benefit from being automatically included in the district formed in 2017. He said his tax bill for the library runs about $110 a year. The voter-approved property tax supporting the district is 39 cents per thousand. Pelfrey then went on about how horrible the library in Grants Pass was, full of offensive materials displayed right by the front door and homeless people sleeping in the aisles. He did admit he’d only been in the library once when he was running for the library board. He said he thought he ought to go see what it looked like then but hasn’t been back since.

During the 7 a.m. talk show hour Baertschiger went into some detail about ORS 198.870 he says indicates there are 29 kinds of districts people can opt out of. He blamed the statute for creating a situation that could end up gutting the library district, but seemed very pleased with himself when he reminded Meyer he’s already relieved the taxpayers of Josephine County of the 4-cent tax burden approved by voters to support the 4H and Master Gardeners programs. Meyer encouraged Baertschiger to let people opt out of the district, saying if it passes in Josephine County he’ll opt out of the library district in Medford where he lives.

The Library District’s lawyer, Mike Mayerle, said he was there to interpret the state statute the board found that seemed to allow people to opt out of special districts. He said the statute indicates a petition should be denied if it is feasible the property owner would benefit from the district. Mayerle said it is feasible Pelfrey’s property benefits from the district and used Mike Pelfrey’s attempt to get on the library board as an example of a benefit. The feasibility of a benefit is the only question the board should consider, he said. He warned the board about setting a precedent that could be a “real nightmare” in the state.

Speakers supporting the Pelfreys had all sorts of reasons why Commissioners should approve the petition, but feasibility of benefit seemed too confusing for them to follow. Victoria Marshall babbled on about how the system wasn’t a county system but a community system now so anybody can join and how the library wants a new building and they will probably come back and raise the district tax. Judy Ahrens complained about all the porn in the children’s section of the library and said libraries were getting very liberal. Cathy Millard asked why the opt out petition was such a big deal. A guy in a black cowboy hat complained about having to pay the tax when he doesn’t use the library. Another guy in a ball cap said he was offended because the library’s web site had a notice on it from a group giving away clean heroin needles. “That’s just wrong and conservatives of this county are against it.”  Indra Nicholas said she would like to opt out of the library district because paying the tax is a burden and she doesn’t use the library anymore. In fact, she’d like to opt out of all the tax districts she finds bothersome, she said. Others complained the library was so full of offensive material they wouldn’t take children there. A high school student who seemed to have had his fill of this kind of thing got up and said libraries are places where free speech is protected and it’s up to parents to see that their children don’t get into materials too advanced for them.

Those speaking against the petition talked about the hard work it took to get the district on the ballot and passed, volunteers spoke of what an asset the library is in the community and a founder of the district said it breaks her heart to see this attempt to drain the library of resources in order to destroy it. Larry West reminded commissioners they have a charter that says the board “shall” support the library. Baertschiger asked what that means. “What does shall mean? Does that mean monetary? Or just that we support the district?” he asked flippantly.

An articulate opponent of the petition, Dennis Webber, finally got a turn at the podium. He said: “My comments today somewhat tangentially related to question of library viability in Josephine county. My concerns revolve around how the handling of this issue reflects the quality of governance in our county. I’m first of all concerned with the ex parte (with respect to one side only) communications between the commissioners and parties involved in the discussion today. It’s widely known that this is not a sudden issue of such critical nature that it needed to be added to the agenda literally in the last hour. This has been long talked about by commissioners and the plaintiff party in this case as part of a political playback move over a lost election bid. For those unfamiliar with Oregon’s ethics law, said ex parte communication is a violation of ethics rules for elected officials. Speaking of the plaintiff party contrary to one of our commissioners understanding of jurisprudence the burden of proof rests with the plaintiff, in this case Mr. Pelfrey and not with the defendant. which is the rightfully and legally voted on and approved Josephine County Community Library District. So while Mr. Pelfrey had prior knowledge of the communication about this hearing, those legally able to speak for the defendant, the Library District, did not receive that same prior notification regarding this hearing. The rules of jurisprudence in our country not only deem presumed innocence until proven guilty they also require adequate representation for any hearing regarding guilt or innocence. It’s a fearful thing for every life in Josephine County if the rule of law is thrown away so that a political crony can receive a $110 a year relief in his taxes. Speaking of which Mr. Baertschiger’s public statements regarding how many staff members and how much staff time has been invested in preparing documents for an agenda item added only yesterday. How many thousands of dollars has all of this staff work cost us so that Mr. Pelfrey can save his $110 dollars? In addition, Mr. Baertschiger provided us clarity to the logic upon which the presumed guilt of the library district which has been predetermined. It cannot be said that Mr. Pelfrey’s property does not benefit from access to library services. And by the way any benefit of service is not to the property but it is realized as a potential benefit to the owner of that property. This means that Mr. Pelfrey has had to make the case…. Baertschiger, growing impatient with the criticism, cut Webber off mid-sentence and closed the public hearing.

After closing the hearing Baertschiger denied he’d hurried up the hearing process and said “we had someone come up to the microphone to do some political gaffing and that’s not helpful at all.” It wasn’t clear if he was referring to Webber or someone else.

Winne Pelfrey, in making her case for opting out of the district, just told the board that the library district didn’t benefit her property. Mike Pelfrey said he’s paying a tax “that does nothing for me” and insisted his property got no benefit from a library district because unlike a fire district where firemen show up if you need them, no one from the library will come to his place and read to him.

Commissioners broke their own hearing rules by talking to speakers at the podium, which Baertschiger later said was OK because they needed “clarity.” There was very little clarity presented by people in favor of the petition, however, including Baertschiger and West. DeYoung said he never did get a good definition of how property benefits from a district and said without clarity concerning the state statute he wasn’t going to vote to allow the Pelfrys to opt out of the Library District.

West conceded “this issue isn’t very popular” but said he had no choice but to follow the state statute, which he clearly didn’t understand. He spent most of his time sputtering and stumbling over the statute’s wording but said he had to vote to let the Pelfreys opt out of the district because the statute made him do it.

Baertschiger, presenting himself as the calm intellectual on the board, bragged about his own personal library which contains rare editions and lectured those present about how times have changed and with the internet and a credit card you can join any library in the world so you don’t really need a local one.

After the hearing the board opened the session to general public comments. Some of the people who spoke in favor of the petition stuck around to complain that the Bible wasn’t being used to swear in people over in the court anymore, that the downtown tree lighting is called “holiday tree lighting now instead of Christmas tree lighting, and how Christ is being taken out of everything nowadays. The Board was asked to check into these things. Judy Ahrens stepped up again, this time with cupcakes, telling Commissioners….the chocolate cake part represents the sins of the world which includes spoiled children, abortion, schools that don’t say the pledge of allegiance, too much government, schools that substitute sex education for the ABCs and people who don’t invite their neighbors over for Thanksgiving. The Cool Whip topping represents redemption though so if you don’t scrape it off you’ll be on the path to Heaven, thanks to the blood of Christ represented by the strawberries on top. She gives these cupcakes to the Board at Fourth of July and at Christmas along with her story. It’s not clear if Board members have actually eaten any after her graphic description.