The mayor and vice mayor of Athens, Tennessee, didn't violate city ethics policies when they called on the McMinn County Library board to remove an LGBTQ+ Pride display in a public library in June, the city's attorney found.
Stephen Hatchett, who recently stepped down as city attorney to run for district attorney, issued his analysis of the situation clearing Mayor Steve Sherlin and Vice Mayor Larry Eaton of any wrongdoing.
The city attorney is hired by and reports to the council.
Sherlin and Eaton say they approached the library board as individuals to voice their objections to what they viewed as sexually explicit content in books they said were displayed near books for young children at the E.G. Fisher Public Library.
The display was taken down at their request shortly after it went up at the first of June, federally recognized across the U.S. as LGBTQ+ Pride Month, library officials said.
The display contained several books, including "Queer Heroes" and "Ready When You Are," and the appearance and removal triggered opponents and supporters to turn out for June's City Council meeting to voice complaints and support.
Although the display was removed, those books are still listed in E.G. Fisher Public Library's catalog and remain available for checkout.
One man addressing the board in June promised to file an ethics complaint over what he perceived as a misuse of power, but no formal complaint was filed, according to Hatchett and city officials. Because the allegations about the two elected city leaders were made during a public meeting, Hatchett said Tuesday, there was no need to file a formal complaint to trigger a review.
"The finding speaks for itself," Sherlin said Tuesday in an email. "I have no further comment."
Eaton also embraced Hatchett's findings.
"The findings from the city attorney were correct and accurate vindicating the mayor and myself for any wrongdoing in protecting the citizens and especially the children of Athens, Tennessee," Eaton said Tuesday in a phone interview.
The primary concern is that children of an inappropriate age could have access to the books, Eaton said.
In his analysis, Hatchett said the McMinn County Library board consists of members appointed by the City Council and McMinn County Commission, operates independently from each and receives taxpayer money from both.
"Whatever funds are approved to go to the library by the city of Athens would go through the same legislative process as any other funds that are disbursed. The law is clear that authorizing, or not, such disbursements rests with the City Council as a whole and must be done in an open meeting," Hatchett wrote in the analysis issued in June. "There does not appear to be any indication that the City Council as a body acted, nor that there were violations of the Open Meetings Act regarding the display at the library. Further, there are no privileges or exemptions that the library could bestow upon anyone in this situation, nor is there any indication of any privileges or exemptions sought by the mayor or the vice-mayor."
Library Director Peyton Eastman did not immediately respond to phone calls or emails seeking comment on the city attorney's analysis.
In June, Eastman said she felt she had no choice but to take the display down. The removal request was made directly to one of the McMinn County Library board members, Eastman said, who in turn passed along the order to take the display down.
"The library's acquisition and display of these items does not constitute the endorsement of their content but rather makes available its expression. The display was located in the rear of the library and was not within either the children or teen spaces," Eastman said of the display's intent in June. "The display was not a children's display and contained no materials from the juvenile collection. Vice Mayor Larry Eaton and Mayor Steve Sherlin directed that the display be removed on the day it was placed in the library. Given E.G. Fisher Public Library's significant funding from the city of Athens, the library could not ignore this request from our city's leaders."