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Apodaca: Resistance is growing in Huntington Beach

Huntington Beach City Council members Pat Burns, Gracey Van Der Mark, Tony Strickland and Casey McKeon.
The four conservative members of the Huntington Beach City Council, from left, Mayor Pro Tem Pat Burns, Mayor Gracey Van Der Mark, Tony Strickland and Casey McKeon, listen to public comments at a council meeting.
(Eric Licas)
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Pushback continues to intensify against the Huntington Beach City Council.

Whether that opposition succeeds remains an open question. But it is notable that those entities taking action are organized, influential and sophisticated in their efforts. They are using their platforms and resources in an attempt to counter the highly controversial measures promoted by a four-member council majority, and the people involved are as determined as they are passionate.

The four elected officials in question— Mayor Gracey Van Der Mark, Mayor Pro Tem Pat Burns and council members Tony Strickland and Casey McKeon — should take heed. The changes to city policy and operations that they have pursued, which are deeply unpopular with a large segment of voters, might not stand in the long run.

To recap, since this group took control after the 2022 election, they have banned the rainbow Pride Flag from city property; dissolved the city’s human relations committee; approved a new policy that eliminated references to hate crimes and included anti-transgender language; advocated for a ballot measure requiring voter ID that passed in March; and engaged in costly legal battles with the state over a $5.4-million settlement with the operators of the Pacific Airshow and their refusal to abide by California’s housing mandate.

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They have been aided in these efforts by the hard-charging city attorney, Michael Gates, while they’ve been opposed by council members Dan Kalmick, Natalie Moser and Rhonda Bolton.

The battles over these issues have kept the city in the spotlight, and not in a good way. While many other communities in Orange County and across the country have taken similarly extreme steps, Huntington Beach has gained a nationwide reputation for its full-scale embrace of far-right extremism and intolerance — a reputation that many residents want no part of.

In particular, the council’s attack on the city’s public library system is generating a strong groundswell of community activism.

The City Council is in the process of forming a parent/guardian review board of up to 21 appointed members that will screen children’s books for sexual content and references, superseding the decisions made by library staff regarding which books to include and where they should be shelved.

The council is also soliciting proposals to turn public library operations over to a private company. That idea came to them from former Huntington Beach Mayor Mike Posey, who now works for Library Systems & Services, a private operator of public libraries which would presumably be the front-runner to win a contract.

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None of this makes sense to Dina Chavez, a board member and past president of the nonprofit Friends of the Library, which has 1,200 dues-paying volunteer members who run used-book sales, a gift shop, programs and fundraisers. The library would undoubtedly lose the $250,000 the organization raises each year if the privatization plan is implemented.

Trusted and experienced librarians would also be lost, Chavez expects, because they would likely be forced to reapply for positions at lower salaries and benefits. Reduced levels of service would result.

“We’re trying to stop this because there’s actually nothing wrong with our library,” she said. “There’s no reason to do this. It baffles me that they’re even considering such a thing.”

So in an effort to raise awareness, the Friends of the Library has been distributing thousands of signs emblazoned with “Support Our Library” and “I (heart symbol) HBPL” messaging. They’ve been on display all over the city — on lawns and in marches down Main Street — showing just how committed many residents are to preserving the current library system.

That sentiment is deep and broad, as demonstrated by a recent survey conducted on behalf of the Orange County Employees Assn., a public sector union with about 12,000 active members, including five management-level HBPL employees. The survey found that 67% of the city residents queried said they opposed library privatization when they were initially asked.

After arguments for and against privatization were presented, the share of respondents in opposition rose to 74%.

“We didn’t bake the cake to get a result that was engineered,” said Tim Steed, OCEA’s assistant general manager. “ It’s clear that the electorate opposes this decision.”

And those marches down Main Street toward the pier — those are organized by Protect Huntington Beach, a group started in early 2023 when a few citizens became alarmed by the City Council’s culture war agenda. It was later registered as a political action committee, and its aim is to educate the public and campaign against what its members see as dangerous changes to city governance.

Lately it is focusing its efforts on a petition to repeal the book review committee and on stopping the privatization of the public library. The marches draw anywhere from 100 to 400 participants every Friday evening. Other methods the group employs include sit-ins, rallies and signature-gathering.

“The level of support we’re getting from volunteers has been overwhelming,” said Protect Huntington Beach’s co-chair Cathey Ryder, a retired high school activities director and one of the co-founders of the organization.

“It truly is grassroots.”

If Huntington Beach City Council members are paying attention — as they should — they’ll realize that this kind of grassroots community activism has been proven throughout history to be highly effective. The growing movement to stop the council’s wrongheaded policies should not be underestimated.

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