Huntsville City Council privatizes public library operations despite pushback from residents

The decision to enter into a 10-year contract with Library Systems & Services came a few months after Huntsville city officials ordered library staff to remove a “Read With Pride” display highlighting books with LGBTQ+ themes.


On Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022, a few months after Huntsville city officials ordered the removal of a “Read With Pride” display at the Huntsville Public Library, the city council voted to outsource library operations to a private company.

The Huntsville City Council on Tuesday voted to outsource its public library operations to a private company, despite opposition expressed by multiple residents and calls to delay a vote so community members could gather more information about the proposal and provide input.

The decision to enter a 10-year contract with Maryland-based Library Systems & Services came a few months after city officials ordered library staff to remove a "Ride With Pride" display highlighting books with LGBTQ+ themes. The move was approved 6-3, with eight council members and Huntsville Mayor Andy Brauninger voting.

Now the existing library employees' jobs are at risk, with a Dec. 15 letter from the city informing them they would no longer be city employees once the contract takes effect in late January and they are not guaranteed to have jobs with the company.

Many of the dozen or so community members who spoke about the issue at Tuesday's council meeting questioned city leaders' motives for privatizing the Huntsville Public Library, with some suggesting a dispute about the appropriateness of LGBTQ-related content was a factor. According to the agenda item for the council meeting, the current annual operating budget for the library is $711,805 and the city expects to save more than $750,000 over the life of its contract with Library Systems & Services.

"This move to contract out our public library is about one thing and one thing only: Our library had the audacity to recognize that LGBTQ people exist and that they are a part of our community," one resident told the city council before the vote. "This business of contracting out was never a serious issue prior to that rather innocuous display."

Michelle Lyons, the president of the Huntsville Public Library Board, told Houston Public Media before the council meeting that the board had not been informed or consulted about the proposed contract with Library Systems & Services even though board members are appointed by the city council and tasked with making policy and programming recommendations regarding the library. She repeated that to council members during Tuesday's meeting and asked that they at least delay a vote to allow for more public engagement.

Council member Vicki McKenzie made a motion to postpone a vote until Jan. 17, but that proposal failed by a margin of 5-4. McKenzie subsequently voted to authorize the contract with the private company, as did Brauninger and council members Pat Graham, Russell Humphrey, Bert Lyle and Jon Strong. Council members Daiquiri Beebe, Karen Denman and Deloris Massey voted against the proposal.

Raymond Garcia, a spokesperson for the American Library Association, said before the city council vote Tuesday that the national nonprofit organization has a policy affirming that “publicly funded libraries should remain directly accountable to the publics they serve.”

“Therefore, the American Library Association opposes the shifting of policy making and management oversight of library services from the public to the private for-profit sector,” Garcia added.

A Huntsville Public Library employee who spoke to Houston Public Media on the condition of anonymity, because of a fear of retaliation, said library employees received a letter about the impending arrangement with Library Systems & Services shortly after a holiday luncheon last week that included Brauninger and City Manager Aron Kulhavy, who ordered the removal of the "Read With Pride" display in late August and proposed the contract with the private company. According to the letter, the library's nine existing employees can interview for jobs with Library Systems & Services, or for another position with the city, but are not guaranteed roles.

Many of Tuesday's speakers expressed support for existing library employees and said their service is valued by the Huntsville community. The library opened 55 years ago.

"This is a form of censorship,” a Huntsville resident told the council. “… To let the library people go before Christmas, even Ebenezer Scrooge would not approve of that. This is heartless."

The removal of the "Read With Pride" display in late August was in response to a complaint by a community member, according to the library employee, who said the library exhibited a similar display last year without it being the subject of scrutiny. The library remains prohibited by city officials from having any sort of displays, the employee said.

This October, a Huntsville Police Department officer reviewed a series of library books, because of a complaint about their legality, according to emails obtained through an open records request by Huntsville resident Amanda Louie and shared with Houston Public Media. The library employee said no books ended up being taken off the shelves.

"Clearly, better oversight is needed," said a Huntsville resident who expressed support for hiring Library Systems & Services.

Huntsville, about a one-hour drive north of Houston, has a population of about 46,000 and is home to Sam Houston State University. It also serves as the headquarters for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

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