An invasion of politics imperils Lafayette’s public libraries

Michael Lunsford, center, speaks with activists protesting political machinations at the library board of control outside of a February council meeting. Photo by Travis Gauthier

A week before the Lafayette Parish Council was scheduled to vote on its next appointment to Lafayette’s public library board, board member Landon Boudreaux texted Councilman Josh Carlson to check in. He had second thoughts about his and Carlson’s preferred candidate. 

Carlson: Dude I went to bat for him. Everyone is on board.
Boudreaux: I don’t think it will. But unsure
Carlson: You don’t think it will what? Bryan and John are onboard.
Boudreaux: Change. It worries me his connection with Lunsford with everything going on. But the only other option is Maturin.
Carlson: Correct.

The candidate in question was Robert Judge, an outspoken social conservative. The only other option was Glynn Shelly Maturin, a self-described “constitutional conservative” who secured an endorsement from the Lafayette Republican Parish Executive Committee in his unsuccessful bid for a district court judgeship last fall. Landon Boudreaux is an elected member of RPEC.

It was the activist group Supporters of Lafayette Public Libraries that obtained the text exchange. They vigorously opposed Judge’s nomination — and eventual appointment — over other candidates they deem more qualified and less partisan. Judge’s place on the board, after previously protesting the library, is yet another indication, the Supporters group contends, of an effort underway to undermine the library system, partly as punishment for its efforts to produce Drag Queen Story Time in 2018. 

Despite the appearance of politics at play in the appointment, Carlson, Boudreaux and other conservative members on the library’s board of control insist they’re pushing to get politics out of the library system. But for all the gesturing, with the system now in their charge mired in financial crisis — and facing a critical upcoming public vote to renew one of its property taxes — reality is settling in. 

“Getting on the board has really opened our eyes to several realities,” Library Board President Doug Palombo says. “One is that there’s not really a lot of fat in the library budget. The library’s been very financially responsible with the money that it’s had. And two, we don’t have time to micromanage programming or anything else. You have to have a board and a director that trust each other.” Palombo, a self-described moderate conservative, acknowledges past connections to Citizens for a New Louisiana, which helped defeat a 2018 library property tax renewal and has advocated for budget cuts for the system, characterizing its financial management as wasteful. 

Library board member Landon Boudreaux, left, and board President Doug Palombo listen to a speaker criticizing recent board decisions. Photo courtesy The Acadiana Advocate

Trust is in short supply after three years of simmering controversy. And the backchanneling revealed in the text exchange over Judge’s appointment has only intensified the boil. The conversation itself does not amount to sufficient evidence of any legal wrongdoing, according to attorneys with expertise in Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law who reviewed the texts for The Current. (Only a more systematic pre-vote poll by council members would qualify as a prohibited “walking quorum.”)

“Bryan” and “John,” referenced by Carlson in the text messages, are fellow council members Bryan Tabor and John Guilbeau, who would vote to approve Carlson’s nomination of Robert Judge in a contested 3-2 vote on Feb. 9. “Lunsford” is conservative activist Michael Lunsford, head of Citizens for a New Louisiana, who successfully led a public crusade to reject renewing one of the library’s three supporting property taxes in 2018.

Other correspondence obtained by Supporters of Lafayette Public Libraries reveals Carlson vetted board candidates with Lunsford over their political views. Lunsford warned against applicants he deemed too liberal.

The politics have poisoned the atmosphere. And the library’s future hangs in the balance. 

Current estimates put the library system’s annual operating deficit at around $1.5 million, with its fund balance on track to deplete in less than four years. 

Defeat of the 2018 millage resulted in a loss of $3 million in annual revenue for the library system. Its finances have also been set back by a fund balance transfer of $10 million approved by voters in 2019, after sustained political attacks from Lunsford and from former Mayor-President Joel Robideaux. Both painted the system as greedy and irresponsible in amassing a substantial fund balance, the library’s original flashpoint before Drag Queen Story Time. 

Two efforts to roll up the library’s funding millages following property value reassessments failed before the Parish Council (one of the millage rollups was vetoed by Mayor-President Josh Guillory). The effect of not rolling up millages following a post-Covid decrease in property values equates to an approximate $740,000 reduction in annual revenue. Already, the library board has paused expansion plans of both the North and South Regional libraries. It has also expressed revisiting the need for a planned Northeast library branch entirely.

On the immediate horizon, the board also faces the tall task of attracting a new executive director to help right the ship, and a millage renewal likely on the ballot later this year.

If it fails, the library could see another 30 percent of its annual revenue evaporate, an event that would almost assuredly trigger immediate layoffs and possible branch closures. 

“I blame the Parish Council,” says Andrew Duhon, an 11-year member of the library board and two-term president who stepped down last year. “The Parish Council has let this happen. They’ve knowingly populated [the library board] with people of their own political persuasion and without consideration to what the needs of running a library are.” 

Duhon, who currently serves on the search committee for the library’s next director, has been critical of the political influences at play on the board, and its attempts to wrest more administrative and programming control away from the director. Sensing that threat is what sparked advocacy to protect the library system.

Jean Menard began the Supporters of Lafayette Public Libraries group earlier this year after observing what she describes as a hostile relationship between the library board and its executive director. The group has attracted more than 1,400 followers on its Facebook page and has peppered the library board with public records requests in an effort to expose any hidden agenda at play. (It currently has more than 20 outstanding public records requests.) 

From his perspective, board member Landon Boudreaux insists that conservatives are engaged in a campaign to reclaim the library’s identity, and ensure it is representative of the values of the community it serves. 

“We are trying to pull the library back to the center, back to political neutrality, and some people don’t like that because they’re used to the library shoveling one-sided information and that’s not OK,” Boudreaux says.

Accusations of the library fostering a one-sided or political environment have been volleyed repeatedly, often with circumstantial supporting evidence and little media attention. Two exceptions loom large (both occurring after the 2018 tax vote). Most recently, in January the library board voted to reject a small grant for a program on voting rights, overruling former longtime Library Director Teresa Elberson.

Insisting the speakers for the presentation were too politically left-leaning and upset Elberson did not honor a request to schedule someone to present the “other side” of the issues on the discussion agenda — including current controversies over voter ID laws, expanded access and the electoral college — the board turned down the funding from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, in effect nixing the program. The decision and fallout prompted a wave of criticism, and attracted national attention with a letter from the American Library Association and headline in The Washington Post. The news struck deep chords of concern. Elberson abruptly retired.

Protestors outside a Drag Queen Story Time event held at the South Regional Library in 2019. Library board member Stephanie Armbruster, right, holds a sign that reads “Pray for Lafayette Public Library.” Photo by Travis Gauthier

In 2018, the planned Drag Queen Story Time event at the library sounded a conservative rallying cry that still resonates today — and one that painted Elberson as a director out of touch with her community. Both Lunsford and Judge were fervent protesters, and the issue landed in federal court. Judge, a devout Catholic, publicly proclaimed “transgenderism” dangerous, according to library board minutes at the time. Lunsford used the issue to help galvanize a conservative grassroots takeover of the library board. In a recent article for the Citizens for a New Louisiana website, Lunsford touts his group’s work. 

“Now we can be confident,” he writes in a reference to Drag Queen Story Time, “that the library will no longer be promoting overtly sexual events for toddlers at taxpayer expense. At least not for the foreseeable future. We’ve also successfully repeated this process across several government boards that had abdicated all of their power to the directors they employed.”

Supporters worry that Judge’s presence and Lunsford’s influence will make the library a hostile place for the LGBTQ+ community and lead to censorship. Judge says the library should be a neutral ground inclusive to everyone, but remains critical of programming he considers to be political or inappropriately sexualized.

“That was one program that they disagreed with three years ago,” Menard says of the Drag Queen Story Time controversy. “It is clear to me that they got on this library board to control what gets put out by this library system. And they don’t have the training to do that.” 

The new board has taken up, and then tabled, some controversial changes to its bylaws that would further limit the director’s control. A question from Judge regarding direct board oversight for all programming was quickly dismissed after the revelation that it could amount to the board reviewing hundreds of items a week. The library’s cost to participate in the regional library cooperative has been called into question, despite evidence the program results in an overall net savings. A recent agenda action item reading “board will discuss changes to the Library Mission Statement” was put out without explanation and then summarily withdrawn without discussion.

Most library services remain popular and at times have served as a critical lifeline for residents in need. Controlling the narrative on that valued service has taken on a life of its own. In his text exchange with Carlson, Boudreaux, who was appointed by the Parish Council, points to an awareness of political forces at play. He questioned whether Judge’s “connection” with Lunsford, a lightning rod, was a problem.  

“At that point in time I was thinking this could be a downfall of Robert,” Boudreaux says. “I know some people in the community are not too fond of Mr. Lunsford, especially when it comes to the library. So we were trying to look at all angles of this.”

Boudreaux contends that the Supporters group is intent on promoting its own political profile, noting that Menard and another Supporters member, David Levy, have both run unsuccessfully for the state Legislature in the past three years. 

“These are political operatives that ran for office and didn’t make it, and now are getting involved in the library,” Boudreaux says. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s political operatives on both sides.”

Levy has no role with the Supporters group. And Menard says she has no intention of running for office again, having run before to offer voters an alternative.

Indeed, Councilman Carlson himself railed against the uproar over the voting rights program, which was ultimately picked up by the UL Lafayette library. He laid the blame on politically motivated hype in the press. But he draws a fine distinction between his fiery statement and the politics at play in board selection.

Parish Councilman Josh Carlson
Parish Councilman Josh Carlson. Photo by Travis Gauthier

“I’m a conservative Republican,” he says, “so naturally with my leanings and viewpoints I’m looking for people that hold and share similar viewpoints because I think that’s the best approach.” Everyone has a bias, he adds, noting that is appropriate as long as any policy issues brought up in library programming are properly balanced. 

Board President Palombo, appointed in 2019, says he has been reaching out to members of Supporters of Lafayette Public Libraries in an effort to bridge divisions. Everyone’s focus should be on how to manage the library’s current financial crisis, not politics, he says.

Former board member Duhon is also hopeful the board can rally together toward a solution. The retired Lafayette Utilities System manager, with a finance background, has never seen the board so politically charged in all its history. It’s something, until recently, he didn’t think possible. Libraries are supposed to be sanctuary space, free from outside commercial noise and political feuds. 

“Libraries are innately liberal places,” he says. “It’s a liberal idea, a library. But, liberal from the standpoint of freedom of expression, thought and independence. Not a political liberal vs. conservative.”

Correction: David Levy has no formal role in the Library Supporters group. Nor does Jean Menard intend to run for office again. Landon Boudreaux was appointed by the Parish Council, not the mayor-president. Teresa Elberson retired; she did not resign. This story has been updated to reflect those changes. We regret the errors.