The Feb. 24 meeting of the Columbia Heights City Council was cruising to conclusion. The consent agenda items had passed, and the members had reported their civic activities for the past two weeks. Then Theresa Strike, a Heights resident and vice chair of the DFL District 41B’s communications committee, stepped up to the microphone during the public comment period.
Why, she wanted to know, had the DFL been kicked out of the library?
“The library staff told us they had been instructed to not let their space be used for political meetings,” she said. “This meeting [on Feb. 22] had been previously set up, abruptly canceled and [was] reinstated. I earned my master’s degree in library science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. One of the things we learned is the importance of libraries not limiting viewpoints … Libraries offer services to every group in the community, regardless of affiliations of beliefs. Professional ethics [demand it], and in many cases, it’s a legal duty.”
City Manager Kelli Bourgeois noted that the meeting had been reinstated because the library had not given the DFLers the required two-week notice of cancellation.
District 41 Chair Jonathan Rehlander chimed in. “Libraries are not considered to be endorsing of anything,” he said. “They’re not considered to be endorsing any of the groups that use the library any more than they would be considered endorsing the books on the shelves.”
Resident John Bristow said, “This is really peculiar. I’m a life-long DFLer and resident. We are the only political organization that uses the library and this policy discriminates against this particular group. I suggest you override this policy tonight.”
City Attorney James Hoeft disagreed. “The policy is already in place. It’s valid, legal and conforms to all First Amendment rights and nondiscrimination rights. The Council will revisit the policy.”
When the Council met for a work session on March 2, however, the discussion centered less on who could use the library and more on library operations.
In the work session packet was a list of all the individuals and organizations that have reserved the library’s community room since January 2018. The Northeaster counted 17 instances in which the room had been reserved for Senate District 41; not all the meetings were for the DFL party. In addition, the community room was used as a polling place twice in 2018 and most recently on March 3 for the Presidential primary.
City Manager Kelli Bourgeois started the discussion with a review of the current policy, which was revised in 2018. It restricts use of library facilities to Columbia Heights residents and nonprofit organizations. Its language, however, does not explicitly bar political organizations. Item 2 of the guidelines states: “The library makes meeting space available to the public regardless of beliefs or affiliations of the individuals or groups requesting their use.” Item 4 says: “Rooms may be scheduled by Columbia Heights residents or nonprofit groups that are open to the general public and appropriate to the facility.”
“We need to either clarify the policy or change it,” she told Council members. “We have three options to consider. The second and third options need discussion.”
Option A would limit all use of the community room. Option B would carry on the current policy but clarify definitions of residents and nonprofit organizations. Option C would open the room to everyone.
Library Director Renee Dougherty had questions of her own. The library currently charges $30 per hour for after-hours use of the community room. The decision to charge is up to library staff. She wondered if that should change.
Bourgeois asked, “Where’s the tipping point? I think you should be charging across the board.”
Council President Nick Novitsky said, “That’s a big community room for a small fee.” He said if library staff was paid $24.50 per hour and a custodian $18, the library’s costs would not be covered.
Dougherty responded that she has had trouble getting payment from some users after they’ve used the room and was told to charge up front. She wondered about expanding the parking lot so library users could still use the library during an event in the community room. She was told to encourage everyone to make more use of the Fairview parking ramp, especially as the corner of 40th and Central is redeveloped.
Mayor Donna Schmitt thought someone should be on hand to lock up after groups are gone, then asked, “Does the room really need to be open until 11 p.m.? The fee should cover that.” She also felt users should present an ID to rent the room.
In the end, Dougherty was told to go back and revise the policy. She received no guidance on whether or not the DFL – or any other political party – should be allowed to use the community room.