Despite outcry, Huntington Beach council votes to seek bids for privatization of library management

Huntington Beach Public Library supporters hold signs and applaud during Tuesday night's City Council meeting.
Huntington Beach Public Library supporters hold signs and applaud during Tuesday night’s City Council meeting.
(James Carbone)

The Huntington Beach City Council voted 4-3 on Tuesday night to move forward with seeking bids for the privatization of library management.

Council members listened to three hours of public comments from 108 residents largely against the idea, and more than 600 emails submitted were almost all against privatization.

For the record:

12:54 p.m. March 21, 2024This article was updated with the correct identification of Barbara Richardson in a photo caption.

Mayor Gracey Van Der Mark, Mayor Pro Tem Pat Burns and council members Tony Strickland and Casey McKeon voted to start the bid process, while council members Dan Kalmick, Natalie Moser and Rhonda Bolton voted against.


Several people in the crowd yelled out “Shame!” after the vote, leading Strickland to demand their removal.

“I’m not going to put up with that s**t anymore,” Strickland said as he walked off the dais.

The meeting went into a five-minute recess, the second of the night, as police officers spoke to audience members. No one was ultimately removed.

Barbara Shapiro, left, speaks during Tuesday night's Huntington Beach City Council meeting.
Barbara Shapiro, left, speaks about possible library privatization during Tuesday night’s Huntington Beach City Council meeting.
(James Carbone)

Members of the conservative council majority stressed that seeking requests for proposals, or RFPs for the management work, was simply exploring options that could possibly save the city some money.

“I like our libraries,” Mayor Pro Tem Pat Burns said. “I don’t want to see them diminished or degraded in any way. But if we can get the same service and do it more economically … I think it’s our duty as leaders in the community, as council members, to look at those kind of savings. I think we’d be negligent in our job if we didn’t.”

The city was approached late last year by Maryland-based Library Systems & Services about operation of its public libraries, claiming it could save the city about $1 million per year, city staff said. The company employs former Huntington Beach City Councilman Mike Posey as a regional sales executive.

The city would retain ownership of the library system and its materials.

Huntington Beach Mayor Gracey Van Der Mark, center, listens to a speaker talk about the Huntington Beach Public Library.
Huntington Beach Mayor Gracey Van Der Mark, center, listens to a speaker talk about the Huntington Beach Public Library during Tuesday night’s meeting.
(James Carbone)

But some public speakers, including library employees themselves, questioned if workers would stay in the Huntington Beach Public Library system if such a move were to occur, citing possible lower wages and cut-off pensions. Laura Jenkins is the senior youth services librarian for the Huntington Beach Public Library, who started out as a weekly storyteller.

“I don’t know what the terms of an outsourcing contract might be, but I do know that outsourced libraries are widely known for being a revolving door of workers,” Jenkins told the City Council. “Gone will be the days of the family librarian who grows with families as their children age. That, to me, is the biggest tragedy that will come with possible outsourcing.”

Kari Johnson, a Huntington Beach library services assistant, was tearful as she put the Mayor’s Excellence Award, presented to her last November, on the podium while speaking.

“I am here again tonight in these same chambers needing to defend that same job,” Johnson said. “Do not hand us over to outsourcing … look at our faces. We are sincere, hard-working, educated people … We have been pushed and prodded this year, and now this item is too much.”

None of Orange County’s libraries are currently privately operated, though Library Systems & Services does have operations in Southern California. Simi Valley contracted with the company in 2013, four years before Escondido did the same.

Bolton noted that current donations from nonprofit Friends of the Huntington Beach Public Library would not go to a private entity, so the savings from privatizing operations could actually be closer to $650,000 than $1 million.

Huntington Beach high school students wait to speak at Tuesday night's City Council meeting.
(James Carbone)

“That’s one-sided,” Strickland said. “You don’t know if there’s other people who would step up and fill that gap.”

Bolton responded incredulously, “Someone is going to donate to a private company?”

Moser noted that the city attorney’s office went from 11 to 15 full-time employees in a year, as that budget went up almost $1 million.

“For me, I think that we should invest in our libraries,” she said. “I don’t think this is the place where we should be cutting.”

But the RFP process will begin.

“We can always negotiate into the contract quality control metrics and other deal points to address any concerns we may have,” McKeon said. “I totally understand concerns that have been raised, I just think it’s premature to pass judgment until all the facts are known.”

Barbara Richardson, right, speaks against library privatization during Tuesday night's meeting.
(James Carbone)

Earlier Tuesday, the council received a letter from State Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond opposing the agenda item. Nonprofits PEN America and EveryLibrary also released a joint statement in opposition.

“Community libraries help us extend our efforts to support students and their families,” Thurmond wrote. “Don’t hinder them by making a short-sighted decision to privatize the library.”

Council approves guidelines for children’s library book review board

Ordinance No. 4318 was also approved by the same 4-3 vote on Tuesday night, with Van Der Mark, Burns, Strickland and McKeon in favor and Kalmick, Moser and Bolton against.

The ordinance includes guidelines for a parent/guardian community review board of up to 21 members that will screen children’s books for sexual content and/or sexual references before they enter the library.

The review board was first approved last fall, but this is the first time details have been released. It will meet at least twice a year, with meetings open to the public as a Brown Act board.

Don McGee speaks passionately about the Huntington Beach Public Library during Tuesday night's City Council meeting.
(James Carbone)

Board members will be provided a list of children’s books that are being considered by director of community and library services Ashley Wysocki at least 45 days before any board meeting, and any board member can nominate a book from the list for review. Board members can also request any book currently in circulation be subject to the same review.

“How will they decide if a book is pulled or not pulled?” Kalmick asked. “Literally, judging a book by its cover?”

City Atty. Michael Gates responded that committee members can use their own reasoning, including reviews or community input.

“I think we’ve just added a huge layer of bureaucracy and government,” Kalmick said. “I feel like I’m the Libertarian on this council trying to limit government’s intervention into our daily lives, and I can’t support this ordinance. I think it’s too confusing and way too squishy … I don’t know why this council would give up its authority on what goes in our public library to a board of unelected folks.”

Huntington Beach City Council members listen to a speaker during Tuesday night's meeting.
Huntington Beach City Council members Natalie Moser, left, Rhonda Bolton and Mayor Pro Tem Pat Burns listen to a speaker during Tuesday night’s meeting.
(James Carbone)

Van Der Mark responded that she is simply trying to bring parents and the community into the equation of what is allowed in libraries.

“You make it seem like in order to be worthy of having an opinion on a children’s book, you need to have a degree,” she said.

Kalmick responded that there’s a difference between someone with an opinion and someone with a library science degree.

“When I say that amateurs are on this board … it’s not to denigrate someone’s opinion,” he said. “It’s to quantify someone’s expertise ... Parenting is very difficult, but being a parent I don’t believe qualifies me to decide what books are in our children’s library.”

Huntington Beach residents stand and applaud as a speaker addresses the Huntington Beach City Council on Tuesday night.
(James Carbone)

Moser said she believed the definition of “children” as people under 18 was too broad, as are the standards of sexual content or references.

“You are potentially removing so many different books from the library, that are about things like people’s bodies,” she said. “Maybe not removing them from the library, but moving them to a restricted section, or perhaps disallowing them from entering the library at all.”

Notably, all decisions by the board will be final.

H.B. exits League of California Cities for 2024

In the last item of the night, the City Council again voted 4-3, in this case to leave the League of California Cities for this year, with the same members voting for and against the move.

McKeon, who introduced the item, said the organization advocates for the state’s agenda instead of individual cities, citing its support of Proposition 1 as an example.

“In my opinion, that’s unforgivable,” McKeon said. “We cannot continue sending tax dollars to an organization that hurt us this badly. We can no longer be part of an organization that’s supposed to be advocating for us and did the exact opposite in such a high-profile way.”

Huntington Beach residents applaud as a speaker addresses the City Council on Tuesday night.
(James Carbone)

As of Wednesday morning, Proposition 1 — Gov. Gavin Newsom’s mental health ballot measure opposed by most conservatives — maintained a lead of less than 22,000 votes statewide out of more than 7 million cast.

Huntington Beach’s withdrawal comes after neighboring Newport Beach also voted to withdraw last week. The city will seek reimbursement for 2024 dues that have already been paid.

Moser, a division board member of the League of California Cities, said in dissent that the league has provided plenty of benefit and advocacy for Huntington Beach.

“It’s not OK to throw the baby out with the bath water,” she said. “You might disagree with the way that they approached Prop. 1, that’s fine, but that doesn’t mean that everything leaves. There’s also training [by Cal Cities] that’s provided, not just to council members, but to staff, and I don’t know who else is going to be providing that type of training.”