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Library Board chair works against library from the inside

Board Chair Gianna Jacks arranges paper on a desk as community members stand in the hallway of a library community room.
Bert Johnson
Washoe County Library Board of Trustees Chair Gianna Jacks prepares for a public meeting on Thursday, April 2024, as community members wait in the hallway for a turn to give public comment.

In November, voters will decide whether to renew funding for public libraries. But a small group of Republican activists wants to defund them – and one of their own leads the library board.

Back in 1994, Washoe County citizens voted to send two cents from every $100 of property taxes directly to the library.

The funding has been used to expand hours, hire more staff, and build new facilities – all without costing taxpayers any extra money.

But that arrangement is set to expire next year. Library director Jeff Scott said if the bill to renew it fails, the library will have to make cuts.

“You’re looking at reduction of services, or reduction of staff. There’s no way around that,” he said. “All of our services are run really efficiently. So even a loss of a single person results in, really, a big impact on our staff.”

But that’s exactly what a small group of activists linked to the Washoe County Republican Party want.

They also want to see Scott fired. Under his leadership, local libraries have hosted Drag Story Hour – a popular event series that has been targeted by Republican activists falsely accusing LGBTQ+ people of pedophilia.

Earlier this year, they mounted an unsuccessful effort to censor books featuring LGBTQ+ authors and themes.

And for the last few months, those Republican activists have had someone on the inside: Gianna Jacks, current chair of the library board of trustees.

In the past, Jacks has been coy about her politics.

When the Reno News & Review asked about Republican support for her appointment to the board in January, she feigned ignorance.

“I don’t know how they all just kind of embraced me,” she said.

But Jacks is more forthcoming when she’s among friends.

In December, Jacks spoke at the monthly meeting for the Republican Women of Reno, a political club. She identified herself as one of their own, and urged members to involve themselves in local government.

“We need leaders from our party to help make the change that we need,” she said.

Jacks declined an interview request for this story. But Scott said library board trustees are supposed to be nonpartisan.

“You’re not supposed to really bring your personal opinion into the role, you’re supposed to find a way that you help the library,” he said. “The whole idea was that you’re forbidden from having partisan influences.”

The library board of trustees oversees operations at the Washoe County Library System. It has the power to hire and fire the director, approve policies, and monitor finances.

But when Jacks was speaking to her fellow Republicans, she laid out a different agenda.

“I asked Santa to please don’t [sic] give us any new taxes for our library,” she said. “Right now, the Washoe County library director is going to advocate for a new tax to keep his programs funded. He will probably use that tax money to promote even more drag queen story hours if he’s left to do so.”

A week later, Jacks put forward a motion during the monthly library board meeting asking Scott to resign. Her attempt failed, because none of the other board members supported it.

Then, one day after Jacks’ motion failed, former board chair Frank Perez resigned to run for Reno City Council, leaving Jacks in charge. In the months since, only two of the board’s regular monthly meetings have happened at their normal time.

When meetings do take place, they’re often sidelined by hours of vitriolic public comment. Public business that used to be resolved in about an hour can now take more than three, and Jacks has been warned by county staff that she risks violating open meeting law.

Peter Bromberg with EveryLibrary, a nonprofit that supports local library funding, said the dysfunction on display mirrors a national strategy.

“If [Republicans] can start attacking libraries and librarians as part of this broader attempt to attack public institutions, public education, etc., it softens up the public to make arguments for redirecting public money into private, unaccountable hands,” he said.

Almost two years ago, far-right activist groups like Moms for Liberty pivoted from attacking public schools over mask mandates to targeting libraries. At around the same time, Washoe County Republicans started disrupting local library board meetings.

But Jacks’ fellow trustee, Ann Silver, believes there’s a chance for mutual understanding.

“Do I think if offered, and given the opportunity, there would be people who would be willing to participate in constructive dialogue? I do,” she said. “And I have to hope that.”

Silver claimed she was unaware of the close relationship between Jacks and local Republicans.

“This is the first I've heard of that,” she said. “Gianna is free to express her political beliefs before a political body.”

Silver believes politics shouldn’t overshadow what a library is supposed to be: A free public space where everyone can access information.

But she’s also joined Jacks in criticizing Scott.

In an email obtained by KUNR through a public records request, Silver encouraged Jacks to call a private meeting of trustees in order to discuss Scott’s attitude towards Republican activists.

“We should be evaluating Mr. Scott’s behavior on a regular basis and providing him with constructive feedback that results in de-escalation of conflict. That’s the role of a leader: negotiation, compromise, and problem-solving,” she wrote. “I don’t see him as engaged in any of those activities.”

Ultimately, Scott said it’s unlikely the trustees will vote to fire him. Even if they do, he believes the community will vote to keep funding libraries – and he’s not too worried about programs like Drag Story Hour.

“The staff really support these initiatives,” he said. “They see programs like that, and they see the community members who really love it. And they’re going to continue to do that, whether I’m here or not.”

As for Jacks, she may not be in charge of the board for much longer. On June 26, trustees are scheduled to elect their chair for the coming year.

Bert is KUNR’s senior correspondent. He covers stories that resonate across Nevada and the region, with a focus on environment, political extremism and Indigenous communities.
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