By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
Controversial book banning has led to a Campbell County commissioner requesting the removal of two of his county’s library board members.
Commissioner Rusty Bell believes library board members Sage Bear and Chelsie Collier are part of an anti-LGBTQ group that has stoked flames of division in the community.
Bell said Bear and Collier are part of MassResistance, a national group based in Massachusetts that describes itself as a “pro-family activist organization.” He cited the board members’ membership in the Wyoming MassResistance Facebook group as evidence.
In a Tuesday email written to deputy county attorney Kyle Ferris, Bell provided screenshots of the Facebook accounts belonging to Bear, Collier, and his fellow commissioners Del Shelstad and Colleen Faber, showing their membership in the Wyoming MassResistance Facebook group.
“We all know the kind of statements, signs, emails, comments that this group has put out against our employees and residents in Campbell County,” Bell writes. “They have caused division, hostile working environment, and put extreme stress on county staff in the last year and a half.”
The screenshots show that Faber joined the private MassResistance Facebook group in August 2021, Shelstad joined about a month later, and Bear and Collier joined on the same day in September 2021.
Bear and Campbell County Commissioner Del Shelstad both agree with some of the principles MassResistance has supported, such as moving certain books to a more adult-focused part of the library and keeping sexual materials out of the hands of minors.
But Shelstad said he has been opposed to some of the tactics used by Arthur Schaper, a California-based member of MassResistance who has been particularly vocal in the Gillette community on these issues.
“He sends me emails quite often,” Shelstad said. “He kind of rubbed me the wrong way.”
Schaper also made a public records request to see the emails library staff had been making, which was provided to him.
Campbell County Library Director Terri Lesley said some of MassResistance’s tactics also included calling for her firing, accusing her of being a pedophile, and requesting criminal charges be brought against her for delivery of pornography to minors. The latter charge was rejected by an outside attorney who was asked to weigh in on the request for prosecution as an unbiased party.
“They have a pretty aggressive playbook as far as stating opinions,” she said.
Bear, the wife of Republican state representative John Bear, said she opposed the “name calling” MassResistance initially used, but said there has been ugly behavior on both sides.
Shortly after a magician’s show was canceled at the library, a church belonging to Scott Clem, a former legislator who opposed the transsexual woman’s magic show on social media, was vandalized.
Spray painted on his church were rainbows and phrases such as “TRANS LIVES MATTER,” “God loves all” and “LOVE THY NEIGHBOR,” according to the Gillette News Record.
Shelstad agreed with Bear and said library staff have gone “after people on the other side.”
“Anytime somebody doesn’t agree with an opinion, they want to cancel them out,” he said. “They call them hate groups and whatnot instead of having actual dialogue.”
Lesley said acts by the two factions have not been equal. Although she believes those supporting the library are “passionate” about their cause, she said they have not risen to the same level of vitriol as their opponents.
“I wouldn’t say they were taking aggressive or offensive measures,” she said.
Church employee Susan Sisti said she supports most of MassResistance’s doctrines and the organization. She has been particularly vocal about banning certain books from the Campbell County libraries.
“They support parents and oppose XXX hardcore porn being in a place where even toddlers can find it,” Sisti said. “I support the parents who are outraged with this perversion. People have not seen the contents of these books. It’s hardcore porn, BDSM. There’s graphics of parents having sex.”
Many of the books being disputed in Gillette and across the state relate to the teaching of sex education, with most, but not all of catering to LGBTQ audiences.
Sisti was also aligned with the Coal Country Conservatives political action committee that supported many hardline conservatives in Campbell County in this year’s elections, like John Bear and her husband who ran for Gillette City Council.
“It seems like it’s a lot of the same players but I’m not drawing that conclusion,” Bell said.
Social Media Involvement
Shelstad and Bear said joining a Facebook group doesn’t equate to being an active member of an organization, an argument Faber also made to the News Record on Wednesday.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” Shelstad said. “I looked and sure enough realized it wasn’t something I wanted to be a part of.”
Shelstad was a member of the group for at least 14 months, according to the News Record.
Bell requested that a discussion of whether to remove Bear and Collier from the board be put on the agenda for the commissioners’ next meeting on Tuesday. Shelstad said he’ll listen to what other commissioners have to say on this issue, but personally opposes it.
“Rusty has an ax to grind before he leaves office,” Shelstad said. “This is the ax.”
Bell believes their membership in this group serves as a conflict of interest and Bear and Collier should have disclosed before interviewing to be appointed to the board in the spring and summer. He described this as an “unconscionable” omission that led to the board being “duped.”
“They certainly did not disclose this in their interviews, in fact, one of the commissioners told all the other commissioners that ‘Sage Bear does not have an agenda,’” Bell writes. “This is not only misleading to the commission, but dissolves trust in not only the individuals but the body as a whole.”
Shelstad said he made this comment because Bear had applied to become a member of the library board once prior to July 2021, when relations first soured between certain members of the community and the library staff.
How It Began
This was when a transgender woman from Iowa was prevented from performing a magic show at the Campbell County Public Library branches. The show did not involve any sexual content, but still drew the outrage of many in the community, some of whom that made threats of violence against the performer and library staff. The show was eventually canceled, but not before public protests, billboards and significant outcry took place.
It was around this time Campbell County Library Director Terri Lesley said she had to rush to a commissioner meeting to defend the library’s actions on about five minutes notice, despite the fact she said Faber and Shelstad knew long ahead of time members of the community would be speaking against the library at the meeting.
According to the News Record, all five library board members attended last week’s county commissioner meeting without advanced public notice they would be attending, which is an open meetings law violation.
Bell wonders whether there have been other illegal or unethical actions that have been committed and said Shelstad and Faber conspired to put people in positions that “put our employees in harm’s way.”
Shelstad said a public records request has been made regarding text message communications he had with Faber prior to recommending Bear for the library board. He said these communications don’t exist and has provided all email communications related to the matter. Bell said he believes the county attorney is dragging his feet on this issue.
“I’ve disclosed all I had to disclose,” Shelstad said.
Bell opposed Bear and Collier’s appointments. He said he is bringing this issue to a head now, at his last full meeting, because he was not aware of the board member’s membership in MassResistance until last Friday.
“I have a duty to bring it out no matter whether I have four years or two weeks left,” he said.
Bear is now chairman of the library board. She believes the solution to resolving further book issues is to change the Collection Development Policy. This is the policy library staff use to determine what books to buy for the library.
Another compromise proposed would be to create a new section of the library to move some of the controversial books to.
The Campbell County Commissioners met with the library board and library staff last week to try to resolve the simmering relations.
Lesley said the library board meetings have become quite ugly over the past year, with the audience attending the meetings applauding and booing when certain comments are made.
“We’re trying to do better with that,” Lesley said. “There’s been some pretty charged meetings. I would’ve never in a million years dreamt it would be like this.”
Despite only attending a few library meetings, Shelstad said there has been name calling from both sides at these meetings.
“The decorum on the board has been difficult,” Bear said. “With the new appointments, the board is more conservative. We have been making changes and many have been vocal.”
Lesley said her staff has been doing their best to try and educate the public about the library’s policies, but this effort has not paid off.
On Monday, the commissioners will meet to finalize their agenda for the next day’s meeting. Although it’s clear that Shelstad and Faber stand behind Bear and Collier, and Bell is opposed to both, there are two remaining voices to be heard. These belong to commissioners Bob Maul and Don Hamm.
Maul did not respond to a Cowboy State Daily request for comment but Hamm said he’s open to discussing the matter and putting it on the agenda. When it comes to removing Bear and Collier from the board however, Hamm said he’s leaning against that action.
“The biggest problem I have with that is I don’t know why they can’t all come up with a solution everyone is happy with,” he said. “There’s got to be some common ground. That has not taken place.”