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Sarasota County commissioners wage another culture-war battle

Written by on Thursday, November 16, 2023

Ignoring a large number of speakers, they vote to end membership with library associations.

By Ramon Lopez

Original Air Date: Nov. 15, 2023

Host: Yesterday, the Sarasota County commissioners discussed new FEMA rules for flood elevation, they pondered long-term water planning, and they received recommendations from an advisory board on what to do about the affordable housing crisis – all highly controversial issues with billion-dollar implications. And a big crowd showed up, making for a rare standing-room only crowd at the county chambers in Venice, with almost 60 people signed up to speak. But their exclusive attention was on a $1,300 item. Opponents of a measure involving libraries became concerned after Commissioner Mike Moran, who has raised his profile as the leading culture warrior on the county commission, put an item on the agenda. Ramon Lopez was there to tell us about it.

 Ramon Lopez: The Sarasota County Commission voted on Tuesday to end the county’s membership in well-established national and state library groups.

“Don’t Ban Books”. Photo: Ramon Lopez

The controversial vote was four to one, with Commissioner Mark Smith casting the lone ‘nay’ vote.

They voted after hearing from 40 county residents, most of which favored the county’s continued support of the American Library Association and the Florida Library Association.

Starting in 2024, Sarasota County will no longer pay annual dues of $1,300 to the ALA and $2,673 to the FLA.

Those assembled in the packed commission chamber in Venice warned that rejection of the ALA and FLA amounted to book banning. But the commissioners said book banning did not factor into their vote.

The ALA is the oldest and largest library association in the world. It provides training to local librarians and works to improve library and information services.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, both Republicans, back defunding the ALA. They said the group is ‘toxic’ and ‘exposes children to pornography’.

It was clear that the commissioners voted to keep county librarians out of the ALA because of their dislike of ALA President Emily Drabinski, who is a lesbian with self-professed Marxist leanings. They said her political agenda is to back social justice initiatives, not promote literacy.

Support Our Schools, a local group, said in an email that “these commissioners are only here to do the bidding of the loud minority, and the rest of us have no voice. We suggest voters remember this vote when these four commissioners run their next political race. It looks like the culture wars are alive and well in the epicenter of extremism, here in Sarasota County.”

Sarasota County Democratic Party Chair Daniel Kuether said in a statement that “This is nothing but a genuine attempt to drag a Sarasota County jewel into theMAGA-extremist Republican culture war.”

Julia Foster, with the League of Women Voters, also weighed in.

Julia Foster: It’s really disheartening that these culture wars just won’t stop. First, these culture warriors attacked our school boards, but the community organized and sent a strong, clear message that we do not support book banning or any interference with our right to decide what information we want to access, or we want our kids to have access to. Just because some people aren’t comfortable with some of the information presented in some books on the library shelves doesn’t mean that no one should have access to them. It’s clear by the turnout here today that there is an overwhelming support in this community for wanting to protect our First Amendment right to free speech. What’s getting really frustrating for me is the fact that these people keep wasting our time bringing up these same battles over and over again in different venues.

RL: But a number of speakers urged the commissioners to end the county’s support of both library groups.  Sally Nista and Clayton Taylor.

 Sally Nista: ALA’s director is an admitted Marxist. Are those the kinds of influences that we want pushed onto our librarians and staff? ALA last promoted ‘Your Drag Queen Story Hour’ in public libraries in Florida. ALA also provided resources to public libraries to stop a Christian book author from having a story hour that shared wholesome family books with children.

Clayton Taylor: So, we need to protect our kids. Mrs. Drabinski has made herself known in various speeches as to her ideology and her strategies through her Marxist beliefs. So, we need to protect the kids nationally, defund this organization from Florida dollars and taxpayers.

RL: Tim Wagner also spoke.

Tim Wagner: I do not believe our tax dollars need to go to an organization that promotes ‘Drag Queen Story Hour’ and adult-themed books to children. I do believe that sexually explicit material not be made available to children.

RL:  The county commissioners then weighed in on the controversial issue. Vice Chairman Mike Moran:

Commissioner Moran

Mike Moran: Yes, I do have concerns over the Florida Library Association and the American Library Association. And these are Sarasota County taxpayers dues, Sarasota County taxpayer money that we’re paying these dues for. American Library Association leadership has come under some heavy scrutiny. You heard some of it here this morning and frankly, I think it’s justified. The leadership of the American Library Association has taken some very aggressive positions. And they’re pushing, in my opinion, political agendas. And in the words of these associations, these social justice initiatives, I do believe they’re trying to push people around with political and social agendas. I want absolutely no part of it. And my fingerprints will not be on a penny that goes to that organization, as long as I have a tenure here and I vote related to the matter. I think people are demanding in this country you stick to reading, writing, and arithmetic.

RL: Commissioner Joe Neunder.

Joe Neunder: There clearly was some misinformation out there that just spread like wildfire. We are not banning books. This has nothing to do about banning books. In my opinion, this is everything to do about keeping books, into the sections of age appropriate materials for those children. And yes, at the end of the day, the parents do have the last call, and I do believe immensely in parents’ rights. We love our children, we raise our children, we feed our children. Absolutely, the parents have the say.

RL: Commissioner Mark Smith.

Mark Smith: I have a fear that we’re, as a commission, starting to micromanage decisions that are [better] made perhaps, by staff.

RL:  Renee DiPilato, Director of Libraries and Historical Resources for Sarasota County, also spoke at the hearing. She said neither the ALA nor the FLA have any influence on local book acquisitions.

Renee DiPilato: We are members of ALA, but we don’t march in lockstep with any organization. We take our services and feedback for our services from our community and from our residents.

RL: Commission Chairman Ron Cutsinger voted against the library association memberships, saying he would favor rejoining the ALA if it dropped its politics. Regarding Drabinski, Cutsinger said he is concerned about the future of the ALA, whose directors have not pushed back on her.

This is Ramon Lopez for WSLR News.


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