Dozens of speakers implore them not to take that step
After listening to almost two hours and 40 minutes of public comments on the issue, at the start of their regular meeting on Nov. 14, the Sarasota County commissioners voted 4-1 to cease county dues payments to the American Library Association and the Florida Library Association.
They also directed county staff to provide them with a list of all associations to which — as Commissioner Michael Moran put it — the county’s taxpayers are paying dues.
Commissioner Mark Smith opposed the motion.
The majority of the speakers during the Open to the Public period — 50 of 56, by count of The Sarasota News Leader — decried demands that the board heard on Oct. 24 to stop the dues payments. Speakers that day cited the fact that Emily Drabinski, president of the American Library Association (ALA), has made it clear that she is a Marxist.
Commissioners Neil Rainford and Joe Neunder, plus Chair Ron Cutsinger, joined Moran on Nov. 14 in emphasizing their disdain for what they cited as the national organization’s push of political ideology.
One of the Nov 14 speakers — Louise Machinist — referenced the board members’ 4-1 vote in early October to approve a resolution in support of medical freedom, which was promoted by members of the county chapter of the Florida Republican Assembly.
“Every week, a new outrage,” Machinist said. “I’m here to ask you, What the heck are you doing?!”
“I’m very impressed with my fellow citizens,” who, she added, had spoken truths that morning.
“Of course,” Machinist continued, “we are girding for another stealth declaration, pandering to the unhinged fringe of MAGA supporters. It’s appalling that a very few right-wing radical extremists are being given support and encouragement by our governing officials here on the board. Please stop right now. Come to the sane, sensible middle of the road.”
Machinist also pointed out, “At other meetings, I’ve heard Commissioner Moran rant against democratic socialism, quote unquote, in Sarasota County, which simply does not exist in any way, shape or form. This attack on our sacred library system is just one piece of the puzzle, and the dominoes are falling. The most real and terrifying problem in Sarasota County, which has now become a laughingstock across the country, is that we are an epicenter of metastasizing right-wing, authoritarian power grabs.”
“Authoritarianism is on the march right here in Sarasota County,” she continued. “Please, I implore you, step back to sanity in your governance. Have the courage to say, ‘No’ to the forces of destruction. Have the courage to stand up to Commissioner Moran, who I believe has cowed the board on certain issues. The vast majority of voters absolutely do not support this swing to extremism. They’re going to wake up in 2024.”
Conversely, Barbara Vaughn — who advocated on Oct. 24 for halting the dues payments — said on Nov. 14, “I’m here to dispute the whole tenor of this meeting.” Everybody, she continued, had been talking about the ALA of the past. “That’s not what we’re here to talk about. We’re here to talk about whether or not to fund it next year. And I’m telling you, if you go and research the ALA, it is today under the presidency of Emily Drabinski, who has been quoted as saying her goal is to ‘queer the schools.’ ”
Vaughn stressed, “Nobody, nobody, I know, except on the liberal left, is talking about banning books. … This meeting is about whether to pay for membership in a group that claims libraries need to be a site of socialist organizing,” as Drabinski also contended, Vaughn noted.
“[Drabinski] went on to say that being politically neutral isn’t possible for librarians. I think most of you in this room would argue with that. I certainly do.”
Drabinski organized a library conference with 21,500 people, Vaughn continued, during which she held workshops on drag queens and queering elementary schools … These are their words.” The ALA president’s goals, Vaughn emphasized, “is to sneakily push drag queens and queering of elementary schools into small, rural, conservative communities.”
During the board members’ nearly 30-minute-long discussion after the comments, Commissioner Moran said, “I do have concerns over the Florida Library Association and the American Library Association. … The American Library Association leadership has come under some heavy scrutiny … and, frankly, I think it’s justified. The leadership of the American Library Association has taken some aggressive positions and they’re pushing, in my opinion, political agendas. And in the words of these associations,” he added, “these are social justice initiatives.”
Moran stressed the importance of such associations “sticking to their core trade.” In his opinion, he continued, “We’re drifting into areas where these associations are acting like political action committees.”
He is interested in seeing the county pay dues just to organizations that maintain a focus on their missions, he indicated. For example, Moran said, “I want my National Association of Engineers talking about engineering; water and sewer associations talking about water and sewer.”
He was troubled, he added, that speakers that morning had indicated that the County Commission had not supported the county’s libraries, when the board members have supported every request that the Libraries’ staff had made since he first won election to the commission in November 2016. Moran emphasized, “Unprecedented funding, unprecedented funding for capital improvements can’t be ignored.”
Moreover, Moran said, “Our library system is second to none in the country, if you ask me, and I give a lot of credit [to county staff].”
He contended that the American Library Association has $91 million in assets. “My fingerprints will not be on a penny that goes to that organization” as long as he has a vote on the matter, he said.
“You can’t even watch a sporting event anymore without somebody pushing an agenda,” Moran continued.
Nonetheless, he said, he was open to the county’s renewing payments of dues to the ALA and the FLA “if they’re willing to stay focused on their core mission.”
Commissioner Rainford, who seconded Moran’s motion, applauded Moran’s remarks: “I think, Commissioner Moran, you said it very well.” Having placed an item on the Nov. 14 agenda regarding other county memberships in associations, Rainford added that he was pleased that Moran had called for staff to produce a full list of those organizations. “We should have direct knowledge of every membership that our team is part of. … We represent the taxpayer.”
Rainford also emphasized that the county should not be funding “Marxist ideology.” The first point about the ALA’s work, on its website, is advocacy, Rainford continued. “I think it should be literacy. … When we look back at history, do we want to say that we put a stop to funding Marxist ideology and kept it from infiltrating our county and our country, or do we knowingly fund organizations that have said themselves they support that ideology?”
The perspective of the director of the library system
During the discussion, Commissioner Smith told his colleagues, “I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t actually hear from our director of Libraries and Historical Resources on this issue. … I fear that we, as a commission, are starting to micromanage decisions that are made by staff.”
Chair Cutsinger said he would not require the director, Renee Di Pilato to address the board, but she was welcome to do so.
Speaking from the podium in the Commission Chambers of the R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice, Di Pilato said that she had been an ALA member for more than 20 years and that her education is accredited by the organization.
“I have benefitted greatly from the education and opportunities provided to me through ALA,” she continued, including a leadership institute that she was selected for 15 years ago. Further, she told the board members, she had been elected twice to the ALA Council, which is the policy-making and governing body of the association.
Di Pilato further noted, “I think it’s important to remember that the president of the ALA [serves] a one-year term. It will end in June of 2024. … The organization is run by a staff day-to-day,” she added, along with its Council and governing board.
“I also take great pride in my leadership of the library system here,” Di Pilato continued. “We’ve been through a tumultuous few years, with the pandemic and staffing challenges. I’m super proud of my team” and the care the members take in their relationships with the public. “We are members of the ALA,” she pointed out, “but we don’t march in lockstep in any organization. We take our feedback for our services from our community and from our residents.”
Speakers that morning had made clear that they are pleased with how the library system operates, Di Pilato added.
Based on the comments that morning, Commissioner Smith asked her whether she believes maintaining membership in the ALA would be “detrimental to Sarasota County.”
She replied that the ALA “is the premier source of professional development and continuing education opportunities for those in our profession.” Additionally, she explained, membership in the organization affords the county discounts on attendance at the various events, webinars and conferences that the ALA hosts.
While she holds a personal membership in the ALA, she said, “A lot of staff cannot afford that membership on their salary as a new librarian.” Thus, Di Pilato added, those staff members benefit from the educational opportunities that the county’s membership in the ALA makes possible for them.
Commissioner Neunder praised Di Pilato and her staff. However, he said that he, too, recently had spent time on the ALA website. Referencing comments that morning, he added that Marxism “is a political ideology. It has nothing to do with a form of government.” Proponents of that ideology, he indicated, “try to infiltrate and, in some cases, insidiously.”
Neunder also alluded to testimony about the effects on children of ALA actions. “I am very cognizant and extremely aware of what information goes between my children’s ears,” he stressed. Youngsters should not be exposed to concepts that are not appropriate for their age, he added.
Another speaker that morning who had urged the board members to cease the membership dues, Linda Wilson, told them that she believed other individuals who had addressed them had been misinformed: “There’s no attack on libraries. The attack has been on developmentally appropriate material.”
The commissioners’ task that day, Wilson said, was to consider whether the ALA’s leaders “are guilty of practices that are not developmentally appropriate. … We’re not talking about adults. … We’re talking about children. … We are required to be the parent when the parents are not there,” Wilson stressed.
Neunder also referenced Di Pilato’s comments about Drabinski’s having been elected to a one-year term as the ALA president. He emphasized, “[She] was … put into that position by her peers,” which indicated to him, he said, that her peers follow the Marxist political ideology.
Cutsinger noted that his wife was an employee of the county library system for 30 years and has been a library volunteer in her retirement. She encouraged him years ago to become involved in the Friends of the Elsie Quirk Library in Englewood, he added. He ended up serving as president of that organization for about seven years, Cutsinger noted.
“I do believe we have the best library system in the state of Florida,” he continued.
Then he talked about the research he had undertaken into the ALA. “There were issues there that caused me to be very concerned,” he said, adding that Drabinski is “an avowed, self-described Marxist socialist who, in her campaign [for the ALA presidency] spoke freely about seeing [the organization] as a place to promote that political, partisan agenda in the libraries.”
Just before the vote, Commissioner Smith told his colleagues, “I hear what you all are saying, but I also hear [Di Pilato] say that her staff does need the support of this organization.” If the board members voted to withdraw its membership in the ALA and the FLA, Smith continued, he would hope that they could find a way to “fill the void” of the educational opportunities those staff members will lose.
“I think we have very capable people in leadership in our library [system] that can continue this upward trend in our library system,” Commissioner Rainford responded.
A sampling of other comments
A number of members of the board of directors of the nonprofit Library Foundation for Sarasota County — which Cutsinger praised for the hundreds of thousands of dollars of supplemental funding it has raised for the library system — were among those who urged the commissioners this week not to halt the dues payments.
Most cited their love of public libraries, and many praised Di Pilato and her staff.
“[I] fully support [the county libraries’] membership in national and state associations that help ensure that we’re getting the best professional practices, trends and services for the citizens of Sarasota County,” Donna Cubit-Swoyer told the commissioners. “If you are considering dissociating our libraries from their professional associations, don’t.”
She added that she had a petition signed by 200 county residents who implored the board members not to take halt the memberships.
Another speaker, Robin Williams, told the commissioners she had an additional 637 signatures on petitions.
Kelley Lavin, one of the Foundation board members, pointed out, “It’s been said that when you have a public library card in your pocket, you have a pocket full of freedom. … Over 85% of our population has a library card because they receive something from it that is so necessary for the enjoyment and quality of their life.”
“We know that our libraries consistently rank at the top of things that residents value and are happy with,” she told the commissioners.
She also thanked them for their support of Di Pilato. “As you know, all decisions about our libraries are made locally. Dr. Di Pilato uses her extensive knowledge, her expertise and her commitment to make this one of the best library systems in the state,” Lavin pointed out.
Jules Rayne, representing Equality Florida, said that the recent push to end county dues payments to the ALA and FLA “is based on fear and a desire to limit intellectual freedom, based on one group’s narrow cultural views. … These people are real-life versions of George Orwell’s Thought Police ripped straight from the pages of 1984 or the firemen in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, except this is happening here and now in the real world.”
Long-time community activist Cathy Antunes of Sarasota stressed, “Divesting the county of association memberships … is not what a free society does. … This is about control. This is an autocratic move.”
Referring to the group at the Oct. 24 meeting, Paul Mancine told the commissioners, “You’ve heard comments from a handful of people about our libraries. They want to impose their will and, I think, their bigoted view on all the people of the county.”
They say they want to stop the ALA and the FLA “from queering the library system,” he added. “These folks share no love or tolerance for others.”
Ann Hardy, who noted that she worked in the county library system for 15 years, stressed, “The ALA is our trade group. They and the FLA provide mechanisms through which we can obtain very helpful information from other library systems” — IT systems, material handling, “databases and much, much more. I think it would be to our detriment to discontinue our relationship with ALA and FLA.”
Speakers at the Oct. 24 meeting, she added, “implied that this outside organization was bringing ‘evil’ — that was the word they used — to our libraries. I would like to assure you that our collection is developed by staff members who are our neighbors, hardworking and conscientious people who live here in Sarasota County.”
The very last speaker — Larry Wilson of Venice — noted that he is a retired teacher. “There’s a lot of deplorable stuff that’s going on in America right now,” he said.
Then he talked about the code of conduct printed on one side of the card each speaker is asked to fill out before addressing the board. No. 7, he pointed out, calls for people to “avoid personal attacks, abusive language and redundancy.”
“Man,” Wilson added, “have we had a lot of redundancy here,” along with what he called misstatements of the issue before the commission.
He maintained that most of the speakers urging the board to keep paying the ALA and FLA dues were county staff members, which was why they had taken such a stand. He referred to them as “this herd of library employees and MAGA-hating socialists. … These people here today, they’re all mostly socialists. They’re good at turning out big groups.”
Wilson also said that he loves libraries, “but I’m not an ignorant drone that allows himself to blindly follow Communist marching orders to give a false impression of public sentiment to public boards like this board of county commissioners.”