It's been routine for some DFL residents within Senate District 41 to gather at the Columbia Heights Public Library, but this past week the library abruptly barred them from meeting there just days ahead of Tuesday's caucus.
DFL members voiced their frustration and concern over a new interpretation of the city-owned public library's policy at Monday's City Council meeting. District 41, represented by DFL Sen. Carolyn Laine, includes the north metro communities of Columbia Heights, Fridley, New Brighton, St. Anthony and Spring Lake Park.
City Attorney Jim Hoeft said political groups are not allowed to use the library. But district residents say that's not spelled out in the library's policy and the ban runs counter to past practices.
The council will be discussing the issue Monday at a work session.
A DFL group had reserved a room on Saturday. Jon Rehlander, chairman of the group, said the library contacted him a few days before the meeting to let him know it had been canceled because it violated policy.
"For years we've been gathering there," Rehlander said. "At this point they're sticking with the policy as they are newly interpreting it."
The library's policy states that meeting rooms will be made available to the public "regardless of beliefs or affiliations of the individuals or groups requesting their use."
It says rooms may be scheduled by Columbia Heights residents or public nonprofit groups. Cancellations require two weeks' notice, the policy says.
Theresa Strike, vice chairwoman of the DFL group's communications committee and a Columbia Heights resident, said a regularly scheduled meeting at the library for last Tuesday also had been blocked.
Strike, who has a master's degree in library science, said this is an "issue of professional ethics."
Saturday's meeting was moved to the Fridley library. St. Anthony resident and activist Nancy Robinett said it is less convenient than the new Columbia Heights library.
John Bristow, director of the DFL group, lives within walking distance of the Columbia Heights library.
The retired veteran said he doesn't drive and the last-minute cancellation was concerning. Bristow said all of this is "peculiar timing" in light of the upcoming primary election.
City Manager Kelli Bourgeois agreed the "timing is probably not great … but we have to address things as they are brought to our attention."
Bourgeois said the library director, Renee Dougherty, contacted her a few weeks ago regarding another reservation for a political candidate meet-and-greet and that led to a discussion that came to a head with the recent DFL meeting cancellation.
Bourgeois said although the library's use by a political group was barred by policy, the meeting should not have been canceled without providing notice two weeks in advance.
Bourgeois said the initial reservation was made under the DFL group's name — not under the name of a Columbia Heights resident or an organized nonprofit, which library policy allows.
"We can't have a policy on the books that we're not enforcing," Bourgeois said. "I don't think our staff was enforcing the policy. Unfortunately, it's been a change in how it's been applied but not how it's written."
She said the City Council must review and clarify the policy, but as it stands, political groups cannot reserve meeting rooms at the library.
Kim Hyatt • 612-673-4751