Huntington Beach won’t send possible library outsourcing to voters to decide

Alejandra Capistrana expresses support for Huntington Beach's libraries in Spanish.
Alejandra Capistrana expresses support for Huntington Beach’s libraries in Spanish during Tuesday’s City Council meeting. As translated by relatives, she said her children and nephews relied on the library as a public resource and opposed a proposal to privatize its operations.
(Eric Licas)
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Huntington Beach is relatively early in its request for proposal (RFP) process for possible outsourcing of its library operations to a private company.

Interim city manager Eric Parra said during Tuesday night’s meeting of the City Council that the RFP has yet to go out.

But a request to pause that process and send the issue to the voters to decide was predictably voted down by the conservative council majority, despite dozens of public comments and more than 400 emails in favor of doing so.


The agenda item brought forth by minority council members Dan Kalmick, Natalie Moser and Rhonda Bolton failed 4-3, with Mayor Gracey Van Der Mark, Mayor Pro Tem Pat Burns and Councilmen Tony Strickland and Casey McKeon voting against.

A woman supportive of an item that would require voters to decide whether Huntington Beach's libraries would be privatized.
A woman who came out in support of an item that would require voters to decide whether Huntington Beach’s libraries would be privatized holds a sign Tuesday, while searching for a seat in a packed audience section overlooking the chamber floor.
(Eric Licas)

“A group has approached the city and said, ‘Hey, we think we can operationally save the city close to $1 million,” McKeon said. “It’s our fiduciary responsibility as City Council members to look into that. We fully understand the sensitivity, but the process hasn’t even gotten off the ground yet ... We don’t have data, we don’t have facts, we don’t have a presentation to show the community.”

Kalmick said the agenda item was a culmination of receiving public input on the library over the last year. He sought a charter amendment to require a majority City Council vote and a majority vote of the electors of Huntington Beach to approve any proposal that would change library management. Additionally, it sought a resident vote in November’s general election on whether the city should possibly hire a third-party contractor.

“This issue is something that would [take] years to fix if it went south,” Kalmick said. “We don’t have the data to support a positive outcome here ... so I think we should ask the voters. Normally, I wouldn’t want to ask the voters because sometimes issues are super-complicated, and we’re elected to dig in and go through all the nuance and hit all four corners of the box. But I think the question here to voters is, do you like your library currently as it is, or do you think it’s broken?”

Jessica Budica speaks critically of recent and proposed changed to Huntington Beach's libraries during Tuesday's meeting.
(Eric Licas)

The Huntington Beach Public Library remains a hot topic in Surf City, as the majority on the City Council has also created a parent/guardian advisory board to screen children’s books before they enter the library. At the council’s April 16 meeting, principal librarian Melissa Ronning announced during public comments that she had resigned from her position.

Some residents mentioned during public comments Tuesday night that Huntington Beach’s efforts to move books with “sexual content” to the adult section was referenced on Sunday’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” television program.

TJ England holds a sign opposing efforts to privatize the city's libraries during Tuesday's meeting.
TJ England sits in a crowded overflow observation room at Huntington Beach City Hall while holding a sign opposing efforts to privatize the city’s libraries during Tuesday’s meeting.
(Eric Licas)

Very few of the public comments were in favor of outsourcing. Jessica Budica, a Huntington Beach resident and college English professor, brought her two children to the podium with her.

“My kids wanted me to come because they didn’t like that anyone was changing their library in any way,” she said. “I want them to see their mom standing up for their future.”

Resident Avery Counts called the public library the most popular part of the city government and said it was only fair to see what the voters had to say about the issue.

“The people of Huntington Beach will make their voice heard and will always stand up for our libraries, regardless of your actions,” he said.

The four conservative members of the Huntington Beach City Council listen to public comments during Tuesday's meeting.
The four conservative members of the Huntington Beach City Council, Pat Burns, Gracey Van Der Mark, Tony Strickland and Casey McKeon, listen to public comments during Tuesday’s meeting.
(Eric Licas)

Pablo Aspas reminded the council the library budget was $5 million, only about 2% of the city’s total budget, and each taxpayer pays around $27 per year toward it.

“That’s the cost of two pizzas,” he said. “That’s it ... you want to get rid of [the librarians] and their salaries and their pensions, but if it’s only about money, are you serious that you’re doing that for the cost of two pizzas?”

Later, during discussion of the item, Van Der Mark accused the council members who brought the item forward of “fear-mongering” and said they were elected to make hard decisions.

“When you take those powers from us [and bring the issue to the voters], then really there is no point of us being here,” she said. “I think this [item] is premature ... it is our responsibility to move forward with the RFP process and see what they have to offer.”

But Moser called it “outrageous and premature” to engage with the RFP process.

“We get groups that come to the city, to staff, to our emails all the time indicating and claiming that they can save the city money,” she said. “Do we have an obligation, as our fiduciary responsibility, to do an RFP for every one of those that we receive? I do not think that we do, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that.”

Relatives of former Huntington Beach mayor Shirley Dettloff lead a moment of silence in her memory.
Relatives of former Huntington Beach Mayor Shirley Dettloff lead a moment of silence in her memory during Tuesday’s Council meeting.
(Eric Licas)

Shirley Dettloff remembered

The meeting concluded with council member comments and a moment of silence honoring late former Mayor Shirley Dettloff, who died on April 23. Earlier in the meeting, her husband Bob thanked responders for their professional service on the day of Shirley’s death.

He presented a donation of $1,000, accepted by Fire Chief Scott Haberle, so that someone in the future who was trained in CPR could save another life.

After Bob’s remarks, he and his children were given a standing ovation by the council and the audience.