We love facts here at the Salem Political Snark blog. We also adore opinions, which should be based on facts as much as possible.
So here's some facts about the controversial proposal of City officials to temporarily house the public library in a building owned by the Salem Alliance Church, along with my opinions about those facts. Note: I'm going to send this blog post to officials at the City of Salem so they can check my facts.
First, though, I invite you to sign a petition I started last Friday in support of the Salem Human Rights Commission, which opposes the library using the church-owned building while renovations are occurring, given the church's opposition to same-sex marriage and its view that same-sex sex is a sin.
The following facts are based on the most recent meeting of the Library Renovation Council Subcommittee. I listened to the portion of the audio file of the June 18, 2019 meeting dealing with the relocation of the library, since apparently there are no written minutes of the meeting. (The Meeting Notes just consisted of the audio file.)
I jotted down quotes as I listened. The quotes from meeting participants (see above) shared in this post shouldn't be taken as a perfect transcript of what they said, but are accurate enough for blog post purposes. The discussion of finding a site to temporarily house the library was lengthy.
It often was difficult to know who was speaking. So if I'm confident about who said something, I'll identify them in a quote. Otherwise, I'll leave the quote unidentified. Here's the three facts that stood out for me.
(1) Seemingly there are alternatives to the building owned by the Salem Alliance Church. At the subcommittee's April meeting, three locations were mentioned as leading candidates to temporarily house the library: the church-owned Capital Press building, Liberty Plaza, and the Vick Building.
Some Googling shows that large spaces in Liberty Plaza no longer are available. But plenty of space in the Vick Building is still shown as available to be leased, 24,000 square feet on the first and second floors. I believe the library is only looking for around 15,000 square feet. The Capital Press building is 16,000 square feet.
And there was talk at the June meeting about a location that I believe was termed "Pringle Warehouse." It could be this listing, but I'm not sure. Regardless, I didn't hear anyone say the Capital Press building was the only option for the library. It just was viewed by City staff as the best option.
Library staff and others toured the Vick Building, but felt the Capital Press building was preferable. One reason is cost, since it was said repeatedly that if the lease (likely 18 months) cost less than was budgeted, the savings could be used for other library needs. This tells me that the City of Salem probably could afford to lease a different building, if this was necessary.
UPDATE: Today, July 17, I called the company that had the Vick Building up for sale or lease. I was told that a contract on the Vick Building has been signed, and it will be purchased within the next few months. So that option is gone for a temporary library.
(2) The Library Renovation Subcommittee was divided on the Capital Press building. Much of the discussion at the meeting centered around pushback from the community if the City of Salem leased space for the library from a church that is viewed as anti-LGBTQ rights, given its stance on same-sex marriage and same-sex sex. Here's some quotes:
"I think we're going to be dinged for it [using the church building], and I don't like it. I don't like giving money to a church that is discriminatory, and doesn't follow the law."
"My concern is that there are community groups that will not meet at that space [Broadway Commons, also owned by the church]. And if I can extrapolate, they would not meet at the library, if we were to be there [Capital Press building]. So that's a concern for me, and I'm just concerned we're going to limit the people who are going to come to the library for the next two years."
Now, my impression is that when the person quoted above said the church doesn't follow the law, this referred to the fact that same-sex marriage is legal everywhere in the United States. However, the Salem Alliance Church doesn't believe in same-sex marriage.
Others at the meeting argued that it is legal for a church to deny its members the right to be married by the church, which is correct. However, this didn't sway those who felt that the City of Salem shouldn't house the public library in a building owned by a group opposed to LGBTQ rights.
Near the end of the meeting, Public Works Director Peter Fernandez (whose voice I recognized) said in regard to leasing the church-owned building, "We're just going to have to hold our nose." Meaning, ignore something unpleasant. And in regard to going to the Human Rights Commission, Fernandez said, "We're just looking for some discussion and ultimately some cover."
Turns out, not only did the Human Rights Commission not give City officials any cover when it comes to leasing the Capital Press building, it actively opposed doing this.
(3) Most agreed that the Human Rights Commission should weigh-in on the LGBTQ rights issue. Given the back and forth between the Library Renovation Subcommittee members regarding the appropriateness of temporarily housing the library in a building owned by the Salem Alliance Church, there was general agreement that the Human Rights Commission should be asked how it feels about this.
What I found interesting is how optimistic most of the committee members were about getting the Human Rights Commission stamp of approval to lease the Capital Press building from the church. The plan was for several City of Salem staff members to first meet with the Commission's LGBTQ Rights Task Force, then with the Human Rights Commission itself.
The idea was to stress how welcoming and inclusive the temporary library would be to the LGBTQ community, even though the Salem Alliance Church was opposed to the fundamental rights of same-sex marriage and the ability to engage in same-sex sex without being termed a "sinner."
Of course, that idea came to a screeching halt when the Human Rights Commission ended up voting unanimously to oppose using the church-owned property as a temporary library.
Listening to the audio recording of the meeting, it seems to me that the subcommittee didn't understand that just because a church has the legal right to discriminate against LGBTQ people, this doesn't mean that the City of Salem should funnel public funds into the Salem Alliance Church bank account, and force citizens who care about LGBTQ rights and also want to use the library to make a tough ethical decision during the renovation period.
I was able to make out the distinctive voice of Councilor Jim Lewis. Here's part of what he had to say:
"This is a business transaction. The church has a right to work within its rules. Our job here is to find the best facility for the library. And if that means someone won't go to it, so be it."
That led another committee member to say:
"I disagree. We have an obligation to make sure we have a space that is open and welcoming to the community. I'm not saying that we shouldn't go there [to the church-owned building]. I'm just saying we have a [Human Rights] Commission. We have a process. If there are things we can do to help mitigate those concerns, I think we should do them."
Well, the Human Rights Commission statement on this issue ended up saying this:
The Commission respectfully requests that the City review the available properties for other potential options, and select another location, even if that location is not as ideal in cost or operations.
So given that the Library Renovation Subcommittee of the City Council decided to ask the Human Rights Commission how it felt about use of the church-owned building for a temporary library, and the Commission basically said find another place, even if it costs more and is less efficient, the burden now is on City officials to prove that no other building in Salem is available.
Given that City staff clearly want to use the Capital Press building, I'm worried that the staff report going to the City Council won't honestly and accurately present the other options for housing the library. This needs to happen so the Council can assess the pros and cons of leasing space from a church that is anti-LGBTQ rights.
It seems to me that the wisest course of action would be to pick a different location for a temporary library. Indications are that this issue will be discussed, and possibly voted on, at the Monday, June 22 meeting of the Salem City Council.
I'll end by observing that our one and only daily print newspaper, the Statesman Journal, so far has failed to run a story about the Human Rights Commission opposing use of the church-owned building for a temporary library. I emailed two reporters at the Statesman Journal who cover city government, suggesting a story, but never got a reply.
Pleasingly, the online-only Salem Reporter did run a story, "Plan to move Salem library to church-owned property stirs discrimination concerns."