Chaos at Lafayette Library Board could violate open meetings law

People shouting angrily in a board meeting room
Citizens erupted when Lafayette library board President Robert Judge projected sexually explicit images from a graphic novel at a February meeting. Photo by Travis Gauthier

This story was first reported by Louisiana Illuminator and republished with permission.

With the click of a button, Lafayette Parish Library Board of Control President Robert Judge threw the body’s February meeting into chaos. 

In the middle of a public comment period on a proposal that would radically change the library’s collection and card policies, Judge began projecting censored images of sex acts taken from graphic novels for adults onto a large screen. In response, the meeting devolved into shouting between two factions: those who want to restrict minors’ access to numerous book titles – ranging from LGBTQ children’s books to high school literature staples including George Orwell’s “1984” – and those who want to protect minors’ access to everything the library has to offer. 

Such scenes are nothing new in Lafayette. 

Last month, police escorted anti-censorship activist Melanie Brevis out of a meeting after Judge decided her comments were out of order. Last year, Judge had an activist arrested for continuing to speak after being asked to quiet down. 

In an interview, former board president Andrew Duhon criticized Judge for the way in which he conducts meetings. 

“He’s riling people up, but he’s not considering a civil debate on this,” Duhon said. 

Duhon said he believes Judge is encouraging incivility to achieve his goals of legislating morality in the community. 

Lost in the chaos and clashes is good governance. 

The board’s Feb. 15 meeting was conducted haphazardly, with board members frequently pausing discussion to express confusion over what issue they were deliberating. At one point, the board conducted a vote on a proposed policy with an amendment attached before an attorney advising them pointed out they never voted on the amendment. 

The improper vote was seemingly cast aside, and the board held a vote on the amendment and then the amended policy. 

Louisiana’s open meetings law requires that “before the public body may take any action on an item, the presiding officer or his designee shall read aloud the description of the item.” 

Because the board was forced to hold two separate votes, an attorney advising the board told Judge he had to hold an additional public comment period in order to comply with the state’s open meetings law. But the board’s confusion over what they were voting on the first time meant that the public was not duly informed of the issue on which they were commenting.

Steven Procopio, president of Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, a good governance group, recommended that if members of the public were unclear on what the board was deliberating, they should ask the board to take up the matter again at the next meeting and give the public another opportunity to comment. 

While it’s unclear whether the board’s actions constituted a direct violation of the state’s open meetings law, they could open themselves up to trouble if they continue to make procedural errors. When a public body violates open meetings law, they open themselves up to lawsuits and state investigations. A lawsuit could lead to a judge throwing out actions taken during a meeting in which the open meetings law was violated. Each member of the body could also be subject to a $500 fine, according to Louisiana law. 

The lack of clarity also extends to the proposals themselves. 

One paragraph added to the Lafayette library’s collection policy reads: “Responsibility for a minor’s use of library materials lies with his or her parent or guardian. To assist parents or guardians in this regard, the library restricts R, and NC-17 classified DVD/movies, and any sexually explicit material  to adult users only, to view or check out.” 

People talk in front of a projector screen
Board President Robert Judge, center, is a frequent source of controversy on the library board.

The underlined language was added at the Feb. 15 meeting. On first viewing, the policy seems to prohibit children from viewing material the Library Board defines as sexually explicit, meaning that they should not even be able to pull it off of the shelf to examine it. It would require putting the materials in a separate section inaccessible to minors. 

In an interview after the meeting, Judge said that this was not his intent. Rather, he said the “viewing” language refers to video material available in the library. 

Library director Danny Gillane said in an interview he understands that the policy is confusing to some, but he does not intend to create a separate section for “sexually explicit materials” unless the Library Board specifically directs him to do so. Gillane added that he doesn’t have the physical space to create a separate section nor the means to physically prevent children from viewing that material. 

The board will next meet on March 20.