Wednesday, April 17, 2024

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
Ph: 336.228.7851

Commissioners appoint LGBTQ critic to library board, displacing one incumbent member, reappointing two others

Alamance County’s commissioners have bumped an incumbent member of the county’s library committee to make room for a new appointee who rose to prominence about a year ago when she publicly criticized an LGBTQ-themed book display at the flagship branch of the county’s library system.

During a regularly-scheduled meeting on Monday, the board of commissioners unanimously tapped Cheryl Sanford to fill one of the county’s three allotted positions on this multi-jurisdictional advisory board. Sanford was formally elevated to the library committee along with returning members Paula Hendricks and Jessica Simmons – to the exclusion of a third incumbent, Shannon Witherow, who had also been among the nine applicants for the three available posts.

Sanford’s candidacy for the library committee was championed by Steve Carter, the vice chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, who formally recommended her to the rest of the county’s governing board during Monday’s proceedings. Carter also endorsed the reappointments of Hendricks and Simmons – with no mention of Witherow’s bid to remain on the board – before he and his fellow commissioners voted 5-to-0 to install all three of his nominees.

[Story continues below photos.]

- Advertisement -
Several mothers in Burlington and Graham raised objections last year to an LGBTQ-themed display, along a passage leading into the children’s reading area and adjacent to the children’s programs meeting room at May Memorial Library.
A poster highlighting LGBTQ-themed books was displayed on the side of a bookshelf in the Young Adult section at May Memorial Library in Burlington last year, sparking concerns by some parents.

Carter’s endorsement of Sanford came despite a contrary proposal from commissioner Pam Thompson who serves as a liaison between the board of commissioners and the county’s library committee. Although Thompson ultimately joined the rest of the board in approving Carter’s recommendations, she had initially recommended Witherow to the rest of the board along with the two other incumbents.

County commissioner Pam Thompson

Thompson subsequently told The Alamance News that she ultimately accepted Carter’s competing selections once she realized that the board’s vice chairman had the support of the other commissioners.

“Steve called me and told me they were going to recommend [Sanford],” Thompson explained, recalling a conversation that took place either a day before, or the morning of, Monday night’s meeting. “This was the recommendation of Steve and [fellow commissioner] Craig [Turner], and I didn’t have the votes [to oppose it].”

County commissioner Steve Carter

Thompson added that she wasn’t personally familiar with Sanford and had initially endorsed the three incumbents in view of their greater experience.

“I submitted the names of the three incumbents because I thought they have the first option until we get some sort of limit on terms,” she said. “I don’t know this new person…I want to have solid people on these committees who want to serve the community.”

While Thompson may not have been previously acquainted with Sanford, the committee’s newest member wasn’t exactly an unknown quantity to others attuned to the goings on at Alamance County’s libraries.

In fact, Sanford was one of several parents who gained the library system some unwanted publicity last year when spoke out against a book display that the staff at May Memorial Library had set up to highlight titles about sexual orientation and gender identity.

Sanford and fellow Burlington resident Tara Ariel later spoke to The Alamance News about their concerns with this LGBTQ display, which centered on its prominent placement en route to the children’s reading area at May Memorial. Sanford told the newspaper that she was suspicious these volumes were intended to catch the eye of unwitting youngsters.

“It’s in the Young Adult Section but is clearly visible going into the Children’s Section,” Sanford told the newspaper in June of 2022. “Going into the Children’s Section, [you can see] signs that say ‘Read with Pride’…My alarm was just that it was there, and I said ‘good grief, why is it there?’”

The county’s library committee doesn’t appear to have addressed these complaints directly since they appeared in The Alamance News in June of 2022. (The committee has met three times since the article’s publication, although it has yet to post the minutes for the third meeting in May of this year). But the committee’s members did have a broader discussion about the library system’s complaint policy when its members convened for the first time after the controversy on November 8.

According to the minutes from that meeting, Susana Goldman, the library system’s director, presented some proposed policy changes that would allow the library system to address public complaints about book displays and other things that patrons encounter on their way to the checkout desk.

“While we do have a material selection policy that involves a process [for] how people can challenge a physical book in the library, the wording of it is limited to materials,” the meeting minutes go on to explain. “Since there have been concerns about displays, programs, artwork, presenters, etc. in the library, the policy needs to be changed to include those items.”

The minutes go on to note that the committee voted 7-to-1 to approve Goldman’s suggested policy changes. The members who supported the revisions included Simmons, who was reappointed to her position on Monday, as well as Witherow, who was passed over.

The lone vote of dissent came from Paula Hendricks, the other newly-reappointed member of the committee.

Shortly after The Alamance News reported on her objections to the aforementioned book display, Sanford submitted her application to serve on the county’s library committee.

In her application, which is dated July 8, 2022, Sanford describes herself as an eight-year resident of Alamance County who currently lives in west Burlington. She lists a BA in Middle Grades Education as one of her qualifications for the committee appointment, along with her “20-plus years” as “homeschool literature teacher” and her role as the parent of a ‘‘former teen library volunteer.”

Sanford also describes herself as an “active member of Christian Bible Fellowship,” a board member for Hope Haven of South Africa, and a “lead teacher” for AWANA – a Christian nonprofit that operates a global youth ministry. In explaining her interest in the library committee, Sanford espouses a desire to “share my experience as a library patron” and to “help develop policies and practices that are in the best interests of the children of Alamance County.”

Sanford’s credentials contrast somewhat with those that Witherow described in her own application for reappointment to the committee.

The outgoing committee member identifies herself as a six-year resident of Alamance County who works at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she is currently listed as the assistant director at the office of scholarships and student aid. Among her qualifications, Witherow mentioned her current service on the library committee as well a MS in library science that she is currently pursuing (on top of a BA in Mathematics and an MS in Secondary Education that she already has).

“I hope to use my interested [sic] and education in library science to help make impactful decisions for the library,” she adds in her application. “I wish to continue to learn more about my public library system.”

In addition to the submissions from Sanford and Witherow, the commissioners also received an application from Sanford’s fellow book display critic Tara Ariel, along with bids from Gail Walker, Kristen Witlow, Amy Barr, and Sherry Herry. Yet, it was Sanford who, of all these contenders, seems to have had the most lasting impression on the vice chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners.

Although Carter didn’t justify his nomination of Sanford at Monday’s meeting, he did offer some reasons for his choice to a reporter from The Alamance News.

“Cheryl Sanford was just a friend from the community who’s a homeschooler and has been involved in some activities with us,” he explained in this message on Wednesday afternoon.

“[She] has been involved in the [Alamance County] Republican Women and expressed an interest in serving on the board.”

In a subsequent phone conversation, Carter confirmed that he was also familiar with Sanford’s stand against May Memorial’s LGBTQ book display. Carter did not reveal any particular enmity toward Witherow, although he questioned her status as an incumbent committee member, recalling that the thought she had “left and come back” to the group.

(The committee’s minutes for February 14, the latest that are currently available, indicate that she was one of five members who took part in that day’s proceedings remotely). Carter nevertheless stressed that his recommendation was ultimately driven by the sense of civic engagement that he had noticed in Sanford.

“She was an activist and wanted to be involved.”

Carter was less eager, however, to address any behind-the-scene dealings that may have preceded Monday’s appointments. When asked, point blank, if he and Craig Turner were jointly recommending Sanford’s selection, as Thompson had alleged, the board’s vice chairman found that he was very busy and in no position to “talk all day” to this newspaper’s reporter.

Must Read

Elon council enlarges downtown ‘social district’ amid boasts it has uncorked...

There were no clinking glasses or celebratory sips of champagne in Elon’s municipal building this week as the town marked the first full year...