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Counter-protesters at the Black Lives Matter demonstration to protest the Douglas County Sheriff after he made a controversial statement in regards to the Black Lives Matter movement, in Minden, Nevada, on Saturday, August 8, 2020 (Lucia Starbuck / Report for America / KUNR Public Radio)

An outside investigator found no policy violations but room for improved communication after reviewing events surrounding a rural Nevada library’s draft diversity statement that drew the county sheriff’s ire and sparked protests and national media attention.

Amy Dodson, the director of the Douglas County Public Library, did not violate any policies by posting a proposed diversity statement containing the phrase “We support #BlackLivesMatter” to social media or by placing the statement on a public meeting agenda, according to a determination by Molly Rezac, a Nevada-based employment litigation attorney for the labor and employment law firm Ogletree Deakins.

“I do not find, with respect to these instances itself, that there were violations of policies related to what occurred with the diversity statement and subsequent events, including the protest and the media outcry,” Rezac said. “However, it is clear that some of the board members do not feel that they are adequately informed with respect to all matters of the library.”

Rezac presented her conclusion on Tuesday to the Douglas County Public Library Board of Trustees, which requested the review. She made her determination after reviewing documents, conducting interviews with Dodson, board members, and eight other employees, and writing a 50-page report submitted to the board after the meeting, first reported by The Sierra Nevada Ally.

Estimates for the cost of the investigation range from $20,000 to $30,000. Though the county did not immediately answer inquiries about the final bill from the attorneys, the two entities were authorized to spend up to $40,000. The additional expense comes at a time when the library is navigating a budget crisis because of the ongoing pandemic.

In voicemails and emails submitted to the Library Board of Trustees before the meeting on Tuesday, some critics balked at the cost of the investigation and questioned its purpose.

“I wanted to address the Library Board of Trustees and express my disappointment in the decision to move forward with a very costly investigation into Director Dodson and the Douglas County Library for simply sharing a draft diversity statement which affirmed that Black lives matter,” said a caller who identified herself as Jen Wilson.

Another public commenter from Minden emailed the board with suggestions for better ways to use the funds.

“I encourage the board to end this investigation and redirect any remaining funds earmarked for this investigation to the purchases and needs of our local library,” Susan Harper wrote. “It is my hope that we can come together as a community and treat everyone equally and fairly and encourage Ms. Dodson’s continued success as our Librarian.”

Backlash

Dodson drafted the diversity statement in response to rising public awareness of instances of police violence and discrimination in Black communities. The statement came as part of a movement by librarians framing libraries as spaces welcoming all individuals and backgrounds, and took place in a community with a history of discriminatory practices.

She first published the diversity statement on social media in June and then removed it after attorneys said the statement needed to be reviewed by the board of trustees. Dodson then placed the statement on the board’s agenda in July.

In response to the statement, Douglas County Sheriff Dan Coverley released a letter on the county sheriff’s website equating support of Black Lives Matter with anti-police sentiment and telling the library not to bother calling 911 in the future — a statement he later retracted.

“Due to your support of Black Lives Matter and the obvious lack of support or trust with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, please do not feel the need to call 911 for help,” Coverley wrote at the end of his letter. “I wish you good luck with disturbances and lewd behavior, since those are just some of the recent calls my office has assisted you with in the past.”

His words set off a backlash from the community, drawing headlines from national publications such as The Washington Post and the United Kingdom’s The Independent and launched a protest that drew thousands of armed counter-protesters to the rural county in early August.

Hundreds of vitriolic responses from the community also poured into the library, prompting the board of trustees to initiate the investigation into Dodson and other library staff on Aug. 25.

Trustees emphasized that the investigation was vital to preserving the library’s reputation as an unbiased entity and ensuring that Dodson’s statement was not political.

“I think it shows ... that the library has taken this seriously on each side, we’re objective about it, but that we have an objective report that we can supply to the county,” Board Member Bonnie Rogers said about the investigation. “And they won’t say, ‘Well, you didn’t do anything.’” 

A ‘lack of communication’

To address the concerns of the board, Rezac evaluated whether the diversity statement published on social media violated library policy, whether placing the diversity statement on the agenda was proper and whether Dodson’s interactions with the media and public were appropriate.

The “inordinate” amount of public comment and response to the proposed statement was open meeting law at work, Rezac said, but there were misunderstandings surrounding the proposal, which led to conflict and confusion.

The director of the library represents the library and can speak for it, Rezac added, explaining that Dodson spoke with members of the media even though she previously indicated she was not planning to do so. This was another example of a communication breakdown between the director and the board, Rezac said.

She added that it was noteworthy that though the sheriff was also told not to engage with the media, he did so anyway around the same time as the director, and it was Dodson who reached out to the sheriff to address his fears that the statement of “Black Lives Matter” expressed anti-police sentiment.

“I don’t think anybody, the director or any board member, could have necessarily foreseen exactly what happened with respect to the sheriff writing his letter and the national media attention that this garnered as a result,” Rezac said. 

The majority of the issues stemmed from a “lack of communication,” she summarized.

To address the problem, the board should set clear expectations for the director, actively participate in creating board agendas, hold pre-meeting discussions, set deadlines for projects such as updating policies and bylaws and request weekly reports about operations and other issues, Rezac suggested.

“I did not find any policy violations, but I did find that … there is some distrust, even from former board members,” Rezac said. “And that is really how I believe that this board needs to move forward.”

Mark Jensen, a trustee on the library board, applauded Rezac’s investigation and said he was taking her suggestions to heart.

“I think it laid out all the facts very well. It helped me understand quite a bit about the environment in which Director Dodson was making the decisions,” Jensen said. “I also appreciate the recommendations for how to move forward.”

The library board of trustees is set to meet again on Dec. 15, to evaluate Dodson and determine future steps for the library. 

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