The Leander City Council voted 5-to-2 Thursday to end all public room rentals at the Leander Public Library.
The move comes in the wake of a massive June 15 protest against an LGBTQ festival that was held at the library. The decision still allows city and library staff to utilize the rooms for their own programs, including for elections.
Council members Christine Sederquist and Kathryn Pantalion-Parker were the only opposing votes.
The decision generated significant debate online Friday and one prospective business for Leander announced they will no longer be building in the city over the decision.
The ending of room rentals was one of three library policy revision agenda items the city staff presented to the council Thursday.
The council also voted 5-to-1 with only Sederquist opposing to revise library programming policy, including requiring all programs to be submitted 3 to 12 weeks ahead of time and all outside presenters who will be presenting to groups of children under 18 years old to “undergo a City Background check or equivalent” before their event. Sederquist had offered a motion to keep the library's current policies with the addition of the background check requirement but it died when it failed to receive a second.
The item also adds a formal form for submitting suggestions for library programming or books to stock. This is aimed at making the library more responsive to the public while also outlining what information library staff is required to know if the suggestion is feasible.
Lastly, the council voted unanimously for several minor revisions and changes to smaller policies, such as bathroom rules and computer usage.
Council member Marci Cannon argued the constraints caused by renting the rooms to the public limited space for city programming.
“The library is called the library,” Cannon said. “It’s not the library activity center or the library rec center...We need to be using it for its intended purpose.”
Sederqust responded, "Those rooms, if I'm not mistaken, were built with the intent of being used by the public and rented out. We don't have a Rec Center, we don't have another meeting space and I think it's a shame to take it away from the public for no discernible reason."
In a follow-up interview, Leander Mayor Troy Hill disagreed, also arguing it was not the intent of the library.
Council member Jason Shaw, who voted for ending public rentals, said he was deeply frustrated and disappointed. He said he believes ending the rentals is the only way to protect the city while being fair to everyone because "people are going to continue to probe and eventually it's going to cost the city and ... things are going to escalate and somebody going to get hurt."
"It's wrong but it's gonna happen," Shaw said. "We should have never got here. This shouldn't be before the council."
For the last three months, the City of Leander has temporarily banned all room rentals and all outside performers while it conducting a review of the library's programming and background check policies before submitting its proposed revisions for direction from council.
The decision immediately followed two major events: the city cancelling the library's planned Drag Queen Queen Story Hour after it was criticized for planning the event and the library's lack of background check requirements; and Open Cathedral, an LGBTQ-supportive church in Leander, renting a library room to keep the event alive while broadening it into an LGBTQ festival.
The event drew nearly 300 protesters split evenly between those for or against the event, with the majority of them coming from outside of Leander.
Subsequently, award-winning transgender author Lilah Sturges had her author's appearance in July cancelled two-hours before she was set to speak about her work on a graphic novel.
Several library staff members claim the city approved the event during a meeting with staff and the cancellation only make a month later after it became public that Sturges was transgender.
Leander Public Information Office Michael Neu categorically denied the claims, arguing it was a failure of communication between city staff to explain their expectations that any programming would have to be approved by them ahead of time. He said the city learned about the event at the last minute and had to cancel because it didn't have time to review the event or request a background check by Sturges.
"It certainly isn’t our intention to discriminate against any viewpoints,” Neu said.
The controversy over the city's decisions in two cancellations has blossomed into international criticism by national organizations and famous authors, most prominently with the city being accused of discrimination and censorship by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), the National Coalition Against Censorship and critically-acclaimed authors Neil Gaiman and Raina Telgemeier.
Gaiman is best known as the author and co-author of several books and comics that have been adapted into major motion pictures and major television series, including Coraline, Stardust, HBO’s American Gods and Amazon’s Good Omens.
Telgemeier is best known for her multiple The New York Times Best Seller graphic novels Smile, Sisters and Drama.
In response to questions from Hill Country News prior to the meeting, Gaiman wrote, “I think it must be embarrassing to have a City Council that behaves like that, and (I) salute the librarians who have protested."
The CBLDF has been running a widely shared social media campaign under the tag #JusticeForLilah demanding the city immediately reinstate Sturges' event.
Sederquist, who sponsored the agenda item, expressed deep frustration with how the agenda items were crafted, claiming city staff wouldn't answer her questions and prevented her from being able to work on her own agenda item. City officials confirmed only city staff worked on the latest policy revisions.
Sederquist, who previously worked as a youth associate at the library, said she disagreed with the majority vote to end the room usage but respected their choices. She questioned whether it could prevent any further controversies.
"I'm sorry I'm not persuasive enough to get anyone to listen. I'm sorry that everyone in this city just lost their ability to use two rooms they've been using since the library was built," Sederquist wrote. "And for what? What possible reason is there to justify taking important spaces away from residents?"
During the debate, Leander Mayor Troy Hill, who made the motion to end public room rentals, argued the the decision was "simple math."
"We brought in $1,800 in rental fees and we spent $20,000 in security," Hill said, referring to the estimated cost of the city staffing the June 15 protest against the LGBTQ event. "That's not good math to me...I think we've gotten to the point where we're space-crunched anyways."
Sederquist argued those who protested against the event caused the cost, so "there's no reason to take away something from (citizens)" when the city could require future organized protests to cover the security cost, such as requiring a special use permit.
"I don't see government's role as being a landlord," Hill said. "It's simple math to me...$18,000 in the hole."
Council member Jason Shaw, who seconded the motion, said the cost was irrelevant to him but he felt ending the rentals was the only way to protect the city while being fair to all. He claimed "there are people who are trying to tear our city apart. They're going to keep trying and if we continue to rent, they're going to keep probing it."
When the council last considered the city's previous version of the policy revisions, Shaw joined Sederquist in voicing opposition to them, arguing they should return to allowing anyone to rent the rooms because it needed to be fair and no one's free speech should be infringed.
"I've had a lot of sleepless nights...I was saying whatever we did had to be fair across the board. I hate taking this away from people," Shaw said.
Pantalion-Parker, the other vote against limiting the rooms, said the problem was caused by one incident and now everyone was being effected.
"When parents have issues with their kids, they have toys to play with or they can’t play nice in the sandbox, they take their toys away. We [have] adults here that cannot behave,” Pantalion-Parker said. “We have one issue that happened and now it’s punishing everyone who does play nice. Do we really want to take that away for one issue? Possibly yes. But it makes me very sad to do so.”
Questions remained Friday over whether the vote could actually stop future protests and the associated security costs.
Under the revisions passed by the council, Open Cathedral could no longer host an event at the library. But it or other groups could still rent other city rooms or parks.
Hill agreed it was possible but argued that the library rooms were a proven risk regardless "wasn't worth it - they made hardly $1,800."
"I just don't see any reason to put ourselves in a situation where there could be additional costs that just wipe out any economic gains we made for the whole year. In one afternoon, 10 years worth of fees we gained by renting it out were wiped out," Hill said.
He also expressed concern that another protest could result in violence.
Similarly, the library programming revisions explicitly prohibits denying programs based on "origin or background" and only requires a background check. City officials said the two cancellations were only temporary until the city approved a new policy.
Library staff could bring back the Drag Queen Story Hour or the Sturges event again at any time. With a library policy in place, the city would have to cite specific reasons for any future cancellations.
Several of the groups who traveled to Leander for the June 15 protest the story time event said they would return and protest future events, if asked by local residents.
When asked about the possibility, Hill said he wants to see a future agenda item to bring the library back directly under the city's control and instead have city employees run it. The city currently contracts a third-party company to run the library.
"It was insubordination on their part...Everybody needs to ask themselves - if you had a boss and you went around and didn't tell them and you created a firestorm - regardless of whether it's good, bad or indifferent - would your boss have a right to fire you? I think most bosses would," Hill said. "The library staff 100 percent brought this on our city. I feel bad for our Parks Director...There was a clear procedures and they didn't follow it. I hope they will (be held accountable.)"
He said the council didn't sponsor the event nor "have anything to do with it."
It is also unclear whether the vote would help reduce or inflame further criticism of the city on the national stage.
Janet Harvey, a comic book artist whose work includes several Batman comics for DC Comics, attended the meeting in support of Sturges, her friend, and to show Sederquist "people in the comic book industry appreciate what she's doing." She said authors and comic book authors would be discouraged from visiting Leander because of the public perception.
"They're shooting themselves in the foot by caving to the pressure of the protesters," Harvey said.
The council vote has already resulted in one prospective business saying they will not open in Leander.
Jennifer Gardner Irvin, who is associated with several restaurants including Azul Cantina in Lago Vista, posted on Facebook that her "decision to build in Leander was taken off the table for me" because her daughter, who was going to help her manager the build, is unwilling to work with the city after the vote.
Irvine said Hill had sent her a significant amount of correspondence prior to the vote seeking her business.
"I had hoped he would have made a wise decision," Irvine said in an interview.
Hill said he wishes Irvin would "remember this decision is not discriminatory at all. Nobody can rent the rooms. I don't see how anybody can see that it's a policy that discriminates."
He also argued he has spoke with several other Central Texas cities who said they would be ending their room rentals over the same liability concerns.
Leander resident Dan Rucker, who runs the website The Comic Dad, raised this exact concern during the council meeting's public comments.
"When Neil Gaiman, who is a world-treasured writer, when he's making statements about the regressive human rights of Leander, Texas? That's my city," Rucker said. "We might not care what other groups say about us. But if that comes down to families and businesses saying I don't want to move to that place, then it becomes an issue of our economy."
Mary Elizabeth Castle, legislative analyst and policy adviser for the conservative and religious lobbying group Texas Values, praised the city for cancelling the Drag Queen event and argued it was inappropriate for children. She also praised their requiring background checks.
However, she urged the council to not adopt American Library Association's Bill of Rights language into their policy, arguing they are "the exact same group pushing these Drag Queen Story Hours" and that the council's existing non-discrimination policies were sufficient.
In the immediate terms, the organizations that regularly rent library rooms - including at least one church - will be displaced.
Sederquist shared city estimates prior to the meeting showing that in the first half of 2019, the rooms were used by more than 800 residents cross 24 events hosted by 13 groups ranging from HOAs to scouting groups to even an a political event held just prior to the city's temporary ban by Hill himself.
Going forward, Hill said he hopes the council's decision will help put the controversy to rest and start the city on the path towards healing. He said he wants to be spending his on trying to bring business into Leander instead of these "wedge issues."
"Let's focus on building a cool city. Who cares if we agree on 100 percent of political issues? Who cares? It's not that important...let's work together," Hill said.
Hill Country News will be updating this story as it develops.