Trouble in Surf City: Polarized Huntington Beach City Council squabbles over library proposal process

Huntington Beach Mayor Pro Tem Pat Burns and Mayor Gracey Van Der Mark.
Huntington Beach Mayor Pro Tem Pat Burns and Mayor Gracey Van Der Mark react after receiving criticism during public comments at Tuesday night’s Huntington Beach City Council meeting.
(Eric Licas)
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Huntington Beach City Clerk Robin Estanislau celebrated her birthday on Tuesday night, noted from the dais by Mayor Gracey Van Der Mark during the City Council meeting.

Members of the crowd applauded as Estanislau thanked them, a consensus reached on a night when such agreement was hard to find.

A few residents said they had planned to show up to protest an agenda item related to the outsourcing of library management, but that was made a moot point on Monday when Library Systems & Services withdrew its bid.


Instead of residents, it was the City Council members themselves who largely provided the fireworks at the relatively short meeting via their raw and at times frustrated conversations with each other.

The animosity started early. Council members Dan Kalmick, Natalie Moser and Rhonda Bolton brought small LGTBQ+ Pride flags with them to the dais at the beginning of the meeting, which didn’t sit well with Mayor Pro Tem Pat Burns.

June is Pride Month, though the Huntington Beach conservative majority, which includes Burns, voted in February of 2023 to pass an ordinance that only government and military flags could fly on city property. Huntington Beach voters passed a similar amendment to the city’s charter, Measure B, this spring, with more than 57% voting in favor.

Councilwomen Natalie Moser, left, and Rhonda Bolton sit with Pride flags at the dais.
Councilwomen Natalie Moser, left, and Rhonda Bolton sit at the dais with Pride flags on their desks during Tuesday night’s Huntington Beach City Council meeting.
(Eric Licas)

“There are a couple of people flaunting and poking the citizens of this city in the eye right now, by on the dais displaying a flag that is not an American flag or a government flag,” Burns said. “I don’t have any problem with you guys having them, but they shouldn’t be up on the dais on display … It’s against our ordinance.”

Some members of the crowd jeered Burns. Mayor Gracey Van Der Mark banged her gavel.

“Do we need to go to recess now, until everybody can behave like adults?” she asked, less than 10 minutes into the meeting.

Bolton responded to Burns that it was her 1st Amendment right to have the Pride flag on the dais.

“This is my individual statement, this is my individual speech,” Bolton said. “I don’t treat it like it’s speech on behalf of the city.”

The recess came later in the meeting, after Councilman Dan Kalmick asked for the minutes from the previous meeting to be amended. Burns audibly muttered “pieces of s**t” under his breath during that meeting after Kalmick, Moser and Bolton left the chambers in protest of Burns’ item declaring Huntington Beach a 1st Amendment- and 2nd Amendment-friendly city.

“I’d like the minutes to be amended to include Mr. Burns’ statements about the council members who were exercising their 1st Amendment rights,” Kalmick said.

Burns asked what language Kalmick was talking about.

“The language that violates our decorum rules,” Kalmick said. “We don’t use that type of language on our dais, and we don’t use that to discuss council members here or otherwise.”

Resident Wendy Rincon, left, addresses the Huntington Beach City Council during Tuesday night's meeting.
Resident Wendy Rincon, left, addresses the Huntington Beach City Council during Tuesday night’s meeting.
(Eric Licas)

Burns responded, saying that Kalmick narcissistically believed the statement was directed at him, Moser and Bolton.

“I’m not surprised that you guys immediately thought that it was a description that applied to you guys, that you identified with,” Burns said.

As some in the crowd protested the comments, Van Der Mark quickly called for a recess.

The minutes were not changed on a 4-3 vote, with the conservative majority holding sway, though Kalmick confirmed that the vote and discussion would appear in the next month’s meeting minutes.

Later, as the panel was discussing the pulled library bid, Van Der Mark said she was troubled that the environment “could not be any more polarized if we tried.

“I don’t think anybody here likes what’s happening in here,” she said. “We don’t like it, you guys don’t like it. I’m sure we’d all rather be out at the street fair on Tuesdays, but that’s not going to happen because Councilmember Kalmick has decided to use this to campaign [for reelection] … I really hope that at some point there could be more cohesiveness or just plain civility.”

Kalmick responded on a variety of topics, including the upcoming budget deficits and why he uses the term “book ban” in regard to the created parent/guardian children’s book advisory board.

Patricia Pappas describes "Red Hood" by Elana Arnold as inappropriate for children.
Patricia Pappas describes “Red Hood,” by Elana Arnold, as an overly graphic book and inappropriate for children during Tuesday’s meeting.
(Eric Licas)

“I don’t know if my new suit got singed or not from the gaslighting,” he said, later apologizing to the city staff and librarians for having to endure the process undertaken at the council majority’s behest that sought bids from private companies interested in taking over the management of the city’s libraries.

“This is not the way the board of directors of a 1,500-person organization should take care of its employees,” Kalmick said.

Councilman Casey McKeon accused Kalmick, Moser and Bolton of sowing fear and distrust during the process.

“It’s been a constant stream of manufactured hysteria, which has created confusion and division in our city over us simply trying to perform our normal fiduciary duties,” McKeon said.

Bolton responded that residents were upset and fearful because of the way the process worked, without items like a study session or a request for information that is not confidential.

“Why were we starting with [a request for proposal]?” Bolton said. “Let me also point out that if I remember the wording of the resolution correctly, it directed staff to come back with a contract. So, heck yeah, people were upset and scared. But to sit here and blame all of this on us? No, that’s not appreciated.”

Moser accused the council majority of doing nothing but fan the flames of the polarization that exists in the community.

Gretchen Erickson and Bev Campos hold a sign in support of public libraries during Tuesday's meeting.
Gretchen Erickson and Bev Campos hold a sign in support of public libraries during Tuesday’s Huntington Beach City Council meeting.
(Eric Licas)

“That polarization is not a result of misinformation or disinformation from Councilmember Kalmick or members of our community,” she said. “It is, however, a result of repeated and unneeded attacks on the good people of our community, on our library, on the freedom to read, on our librarians personally and on our kids’ access to information. The polarization is also a result of repeated efforts to get in the news. Political theater is not helpful to our city.”

Councilman Tony Strickland, the last to comment, said he agreed with some of his colleagues.

“To work together, you have to talk to each other,” he said. “I do believe that everybody on this dais wants to make Huntington Beach a better place. We can agree to disagree without being disagreeable, and that’s not happening. At the end of the day, I think all of us need to look in the mirror and try to do better.”