Lawsuit aims to block ballot measure to dissolve Dayton library

A red brick building with black stair railings. A small brown pergola is in front of the library. A few green plants are underneath the pergola. An evergreen tree is at the side of the red brick building. A black lamppost is in front of the building.
On Nov. 7, some voters will decide whether to dissolve the Columbia County Library in Dayton, Washington. If they choose to do so, librarians said it would be the first time in the country that a library is dissolved following a book challenge. Everything in the building would go to the State Library, and the building would return to the City of Dayton. (Credit: Courtney Flatt / Northwest News Network)



A lawsuit is calling a ballot measure to dissolve a southeastern Washington library unconstitutional. The complaint aims to keep the measure off the November ballot. 

It all started a little more than a year ago after some people called books in the Columbia County Rural Library District “pornographic” and “obscene.” Initially, they asked to take out or move 11 books. When that didn’t happen, they asked for the entire young adult section to be merged with the adult section.

The public library, based in Dayton, is the only library in the county. If the ballot measure succeeds, librarians said this would be the first time in the nation that a library would be dissolved following book challenges.

Seth Murdock, who isn’t involved in the lawsuit, told Northwest News Network in an earlier interview that he felt the library board should use more discretion when they bought or shelved books.

He said he objected to the “graphic sexual content” in certain books on display at a publicly-funded library, including “What’s the T?” by Juno Dawson.

“It felt like I was paying for something that I found completely wrong,” he said.

But others in town are pushing to keep the library intact. That’s why the local political action committee, Neighbors United for Progress, as well as residents Elise Severe and Gerald Kaiser decided to sue to keep Measure 2 off the ballot.

The formal complaint names Columbia County, the county auditor’s office, the auditor, Will Hutchens, and the county elections director of elections, Cathy Abel, in their official capacities. It also names Jessica Ruffcorn, who initially headed up efforts to dissolve the Columbia County Rural Library District. 

Attorney Ric Jacobs, who represents the PAC, Severe and Kaiser, called efforts to dissolve the rural library district unconstitutional. For one thing, he said, not all active voters in Columbia County are allowed to cast a vote.

Right now, only the 1,076 active voters who live in unincorporated parts of Columbia County can decide the ballot measure. That means 1,707 active voters who live in Dayton, where the library is built, can’t help decide the fate of the library.

The ballot measure follows state rules that guide the dissolution of a rural library district. But, Jacobs said, when the City of Dayton annexed the library in 2009, that meant Dayton became a part of the district. That’s all mentioned in a different part of the state rules, he said.

“Our position is the city is, at this point, inextricably part of the district, and city residents whose tax dollars support the library and whose library building and property are where the library is located have to be given a right to vote on its dissolution,” Jacobs said in an interview.

The complaint also alleges the petition to get the measure on the ballot fraudulently collected signatures  evidence that’s expected to come out in court documents.

Jacobs said he hasn’t found any evidence that “young children” ever checked out any of the 11 books that were initially challenged.

“It’s a two-story library,” Jacobs said. “The fact that some books that a handful of people objected to were merely on the same floor as the children’s section is a really important fact.”

At this point, nothing is changing on the ballot. Hutchens said, for now, the auditor’s office must keep the measure as it is. Military and overseas ballots will go out Sept. 23. The vote is scheduled for Nov. 7.

Hutchens said he couldn’t comment on the pending litigation. Other defendants didn’t respond to requests for interviews.