The City of Ridgeland has signed a standalone contract with the Madison County Library System and sent a third-quarter payment that had previously been withheld. The payment averted a potential library shutdown and ended, for now, the long-running dispute between the library board and the city administration that began at the beginning of this year.
Just yesterday Ridgeland Mayor Gene McGee told the Mississippi Free Press that the City was “ready to approve” a standalone contract with the Madison County Library Board. Later last night, the Board of Aldermen held a special meeting, signing the contract.
The fracture between Ridgeland and the county’s library board began in early 2022, when McGee informed Tonja Johnson, executive director for the library system, that the city would not be sending in its first quarterly payment to the institution. McGee later explained to the Mississippi Free Press in an interview that the hold followed citizen complaints of “sexual content” on display at the library. The complaints referred to a loose assortment of LGBTQ+ books with no explicit content.
But while LGBTQ+ books triggered the dispute, most of the negotiations between the city administration and the library board took the place of disagreements over the state of the contract that governs the payment and services that the library system provides the various cities in Madison County. A resolution seemed imminent when Ridgeland agreed to a new contract drafted in 2022, but payments from the administration to the library system once again ceased in the latter half of the year.
This week, however, both Johnson and McGee were on the same page with a special meeting of the Ridgeland Board of Aldermen convened to adopt a standalone contract between Ridgeland and the Madison County Library Board. The Library Board has now signed off on that decision, and Johnson confirmed to the Mississippi Free Press today that she had received the missing payment.
Standalone Contract Signed
The crux of the renewed dispute was Ridgeland’s contention that it has signed a contract that must apply to all municipalities in Madison County. Mayor Gene McGee told the Mississippi Free Press in an Aug. 22 interview that Ridgeland only recently discovered that the Madison County Library Board had signed individual contracts with other cities and towns in the county, like Madison and Flora.
“We just found out at the last minute that they decided to do a standalone contract with everybody. Our attorneys have reviewed it, and while I don’t know why all of a sudden something changed with Flora and Madison, we’re gonna approve the standalone contract, make our payments and move forward,” McGee said.
Without the second half of the year’s funding in limbo, the Madison County Library Board ordered a reduction in hours for the Ridgeland Library and warned of a suspension of all services at the library beginning on Oct. 1 without an end to the new funding delay. With the payment now in hand and a contract formalized, that crisis has been averted.
“A new fiscal year begins on October 1, 2022, and the Ridgeland Library cannot budget or continue to operate in the face of such funding problems. The staffing shortage has arisen because the Ridgeland Library cannot, in good conscience, hire necessary personnel knowing that there is no guarantee of continued funding,” the Madison County Library Board’s statement read in part.
McGee also sent an extensive statement detailing the reasons for Ridgeland’s second delay in sending payments to the Madison County Library Board. “Without a valid contract executed by all required signatories, the City of Ridgeland cannot legally pay MCLS the 3rd and 4th quarter payments,” the statement explains in part.
The statement also contended that “Flora was instructed by MCLS officials to remove the 2022 contract approval item from their agenda,” preventing the approval of the joint contract. Additionally, McGee’s statement asserts that “the Friends of the Library raised over $130,000 for the Ridgeland Library; however, that funding has yet to be donated to the Ridgeland Library.”
In an Aug. 22 interview with the Mississippi Free Press, Tonja Johnson expressed hope that the issue would be resolved at an upcoming meeting just as McGee had.
“I’ve just received word—it seems that (the Ridgeland Board of Aldermen) are going to sign and approve the standalone contract. My understanding is that they’re going to call a special meeting this week to do that, to then release the funding owed to the library, and that the county is on board with all of this,” Johnson said.
Part of the Library Board’s contention has been that, regardless of how the City cuts it, a valid contract between the two entities already existed. Library Board counsel Bob Sanders argued previously that even if the City found the 2009 contract invalid, a 1993 contract predated that one. These contracts, he explained, should have been valid until they were formally severed.
In the interview, Johnson explained that the Madison County Library Board first offered a standalone contract draft on June 29. As for McGee’s concerns over the six-figure donations to the library, the Mississippi Free Press previously reported the first check had been delivered on Feb. 28. That check sent $55,000 of the $110,000 raised directly to the Madison County Library system. The Ridgeland Library will now spend that money to expand its available books and services.
“We have worked with the Friends of the Library on a plan for spending those funds to enhance the programming at that branch,” Johnson told the Mississippi Free Press.
As long as the fourth-quarter payment from the City of Ridgeland arrives on time, and the City continues to fund the library system into the next fiscal year, it is likely the remainder of the funds will go to similar purposes in Ridgeland as well.