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Residency Requirement for Nebraska Public Library Boards

by Richard Miller, former Director of Library Development
           (1/19/00; revised 5/7/04; reviewed 12/16/10; reviewed 6/4/2021 by Christa Porter, Director of Library Development)
Note: This article is not intended to serve as legal advice
since the writer is not an attorney. The article does attempt to present general information on the topic, but individual circumstances may involve unique or particular facts that may condition, limit, or modify decisions. You may want to consult with an attorney before you act on the opinions expressed below.

Every once in a while the following question (or slight variations thereof) is posed to us at the Nebraska Library Commission: 
"Must public library board members be residents of the community where the library is located?"

State statutes related to libraries do not directly address this question, so it is difficult to answer this question simply. But the library laws imply an answer, and this implication, taken in conjunction with other state statutes not directly related to libraries, does provide an answer to the question. Let's review those statutes briefly before we satisfy your curiosity and answer the question.

First, among the library-related statutes, section 51-212 suggests that the use and purpose of a public library is for the "inhabitants," since it mentions that term twice:

... every library and reading room supported by public tax shall be forever free to the use of the inhabitants of the city, village, county, or township maintaining such library, subject always to such reasonable regulations as the library board may adopt to render such library of the greatest use to the inhabitants of the city, village, county, or township.

Does it make sense to choose a governing or advisory board member from those who cannot access the library's services without charge? (A twist on the old battle cry: "No representation without taxation"?) Section 51-205 appears to give the library board itself quite a bit of power, but it is unlikely that power extends to appointing members to the board since that must be done by other officials. It is more likely that the appointing authority (e.g., city council, village board) would have the power to decide the details of appointment, as seems to be indicated in part of section 51-202 which states:

... Except as otherwise provided in subsection (2) of this section, the city council or village board shall by ordinance determine the number of members, whether the members are elected or appointed, and the length of the terms of the members.

Well, that still doesn't quite answer our question since it doesn't directly address the residency question. But another subsection of this same statute gives us the strongest hint in library-related law about residency requirements. Subsection (2) addresses arrangements of how representation is addressed if a legal agreement exists between the library and another government entity:

If an interlocal agreement, a memorandum of understanding, or any other contractual agreement between the city or village and another political subdivision providing for library services allows for representation from the other political subdivision on the library board from outside the city or village, the governing board of the other political subdivision may appoint one or more members to the library board as provided in the interlocal agreement, memorandum of understanding, or other contractual agreement.
This statutory language strongly implies several things:
  1. That appointment of non-residents from "outside" areas is an exception that must be formally agreed to in a legal document (in the case of cooperative ventures)
  2. That such appointment of non-residents is not made by the authority appointing the majority of the library board members but by appointing officials of the outside entity.
  3. That board members are residents unless there is an agreement with an outside entity for purposes of cooperation and/or extension of services.

Finding such "implications" in state statutes rather than clear, explicit statements might be viewed as "reading between the lines" by some who are purists. Unfortunately the law is not always clear. A staff member reminded me of that recently when she told me about a judge in her family who made a decision on an issue involving millions of dollars; the final ruling depended upon how one interpreted a comma that appeared in the statute! So, for the purists, this may be the point at which you depart this train. For the rest of you, keep on riding and you may yet reach your destination -- a resolution of this topic in your minds.

So where do we go from here? Farther afield to other state statutes on villages and cities of various classes, to election law, and to residency laws related to the multitude of boards appointed by local government. And still we will have to speculate, but in this effort - at the end - we will have consulted an attorney to help us.

We did a search under statutes relating to cities of the primary, first and second classes; to municipalities; and to elections, and wandered through some fifty-five sections of the statutes, depending on how you count them. For those unlucky enough to have to read state statutes, you realize that such perusal always leads to other sections of the statutes that are cited in the text. For those who wish to reach their own conclusions, the following sections appear to be helpful in this endeavor: 2-3213, 2-3214, 14-1813, 14-2102, 16-696, 17-501, 17-801, 17-966, 19-926, 23-3502, 23-3534, Article 5 of Elections Laws (prior to section 32-501), 32-501, 32-515, 32-540, 46-1006, and 46-1014.

The election laws in particular appear to offer the closest thing to a definitive answer for our question. Article 5 of the Elections Laws that deals with "Officers and Issues," and specifically section 32-501, are most pertinent. To quote the latter in full:

No person to be elected to office at any election or nominated at any primary election, except for state officers, shall be required to meet a residence requirement of longer than six months in order to be eligible to be a candidate for such office. The Legislature finds and declares that the election of public officials and the qualifications related thereto are a matter of general statewide concern notwithstanding the provisions of any home rule charter.

The sections of the statutes following the above discuss qualification for U.S. Senators and Representatives, the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, State Treasurer, State Legislator, etc. But they also deal with a host of local and regional boards including, among others: public power district, irrigation district, natural resource district, community college board of governors, ESU board, reclamation district, county board of commissioners, village board of trustees, metropolitan utility district, school board, county airport authority, hospital district, metropolitan transit authority, park commissioners, board of public trust, and road improvement district.

All these boards, etc., have elected members. There are also other boards (e.g., rural water district) whose members are selected by landowners in the district without a formal vote specified. Almost without fail the statutes mandate that a member of these various boards, etc., be a resident (sometimes called a "resident freeholder") in the community or district the pertinent entity is associated with.

So where does that leave public library boards since their members are not elected, but appointed? Well the interesting thing is, state statutes allow for the election of library board members if the overall governing authority decides that is how they should be selected. See again section 51-202:

... Except as otherwise provided in subsection (2) of this section, the city council or village board shall by ordinance determine the number of members, whether the members are elected or appointed, and the length of the terms of the members.

The following, then, are the conclusions we have reached (in consultation with Gary Krumland, attorney with the League of Nebraska Municipalities) concerning the question of residency for library board members:

Municipal libraries are clearly designed for people who live within the city, town or village.

State statutes related to elections provide residency requirements for members of various boards and district bodies.
Since there is provision in state law to elect library board members for governing library boards, it is unlikely that this process and these boards would follow a different standard than for other boards, etc.
Representation from outside the library district would only appear to be allowed in the case of some formal, legal arrangement extending service beyond the original district; and such representation would need to be spelled out in a written agreement between the affected bodies.
The preponderance of state law appears to indicate that board members need to be residents of the library district the board governs.

Short of a court test of the above, these conclusions are the best we can do given what we currently know.