FRESNO COUNTY – During its latest session, the county board of supervisors passed the “Parents Matter Act,” igniting controversy amongst citizens and raising concerns about its impact on LGBTQ+ communities and allegations of overreach by the board.
At its Nov. 28 meeting, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors (Board) voted 3-2 in favor of District 2 Supervisor Steve Brandau’s controversial “Parents Matter Act.” The act will, among other provisions, entrust an 11-member committee with the authority to review and determine if certain books are inappropriate and, therefore, subject to removal from the children’s section of the Fresno County Public Library.
The outcome of the vote was never in doubt. As District 1 Supervisor Brian Pacheco said prior to the vote, “The debate was last time. (Nov. 7) This is a formality for the amendments Supervisor Mendes asked for. I don’t think it’s prudent to relive the discussion.”
At the Nov. 7 meeting, Pacheco and District 3 (Chairman) Supervisor Sal Quintero voted against the resolution. The vote at Tuesday’s meeting was identical to the Nov. 7 result.
At the Nov. 7 Board meeting, District 4 Supervisor Buddy Mendes expressed his reluctance to vote in favor of the act. Mendes said he was concerned the 15-member committee Brandau initially proposed would be too bureaucratic. He also asked that the revised proposal include an appeals process regarding any books the committee deems inappropriate.
Mendes also asked that a list of the books removed be made publicly available. Brandau acquiesced and included Mendes’ stipulations in the revised proposal.
According to the language in the revised proposal, each supervisor selects two individuals from his district to serve on the committee. County Administrative Office Paul Nerland chooses the 11th member. The committee will also be tasked with establishing a community standards policy for library materials.
THE COMMUNITY HAS ITS SAY
During public comments – of which Quintero limited the total discussion to 30 minutes, two minutes per speaker – only Clovis City Council Member Diane Pearce spoke in favor of the proposal.
“What’s so great about the Parents Matter Act is it is truly the common sense solution to respect the rights of parents on both sides of this issue,” said Pearce. “The Parents who want their children to have access to this material control that access. The parents who have concerns about their children’s access to this material also have that control.”
Those individuals who spoke out against the act espoused wide-ranging opinions. More than a few speakers claimed that despite Brandau’s assurances the act is neither a book ban nor is it censorship, it is, in fact, both of these.
The first speaker concluded his comments by saying, “Mr. Mendes, there are no amendments that can be made to this act to change the fact it is censorship, pure and simple.”
One of the last speakers said, “It is so inappropriate to have a board of political appointees trying to exercise censorship over a library system. The fact there are no qualifications for this board is a blatant abuse of power that is unconstitutional, that it is illegal, and is going to subject the county to lawsuits. But those things are almost irrelevant. You should vote against this because it’s a bad idea.”
Another speaker, Virginia, a Fresno resident who is a librarian at Fresno State, expressed her incredulity regarding Brandau’s claim that the proposal is not a book ban.
“Supervisor Brandau stated this resolution is not a ban and is not targeting any individual group,” she said. “This is the same supervisor who this summer proposed the Fresno County flag ordinance that removed Pride flags from all county properties. If this resolution is passed, it will be queer, black and brown stories removed from the children’s section because it always is.”
A mother of a non-binary child said, “This is a book ban. Don’t fool yourselves to make yourself feel better about your decision.”
Fresno resident Grace Miller said, “Book bans are popping up around the country as a larger attack on queer and transgender youth. By banning books that represent queer and transgender people, you send the message to LGBTQ+ youth that they should not exist. But they do exist.”
Not only that, many speakers who were opposed to the act questioned the legitimacy of the 11-member committee.
Fresno resident Erica Leonard homeschooled her children. Leonard said she was dismayed at the hubris behind the thinking that 11 individuals can make an informed decision for a community as diverse as Fresno County.
“I am appalled, not just by what I see in this document, but by the apparent rush and lack of due diligence that has brought us to this spot today,” Leonard said. “To manage yet another committee? Because making a government committee a volunteer committee doesn’t make it cheap.”
She went on to add, “Perhaps most breathtaking is that number 11. Eleven parents. What do you see in this county? Over a million people, thousands of families rich in culture, heritage, history, language, tradition. What do you see that could inspire confidence that 11 volunteers have what it takes to make parenting decisions for them all?”
A familiar argument from those who oppose the act is that it is redundant.
Karen Bosch Cobb served as the Fresno County Library director from 2003 to 2010. Bosch Cobb said implementing a standards policy is unneeded because such a policy is already in effect.
“First of all, it’s unnecessary. The library has long had a caution policy in place,” she said. “It’s researched in order to make sure we have materials to represent all members of our community. Our materials are selected by professional librarians. Parents do have concerns from time to time about books. There is a procedure for people to submit a complaint. Staff take these complaints very seriously; they research them.”
FEAR OF REPERCUSSION ON LGBTQ+ COMMUNITY
A number of speakers voiced concerns that the policy will only serve to further alienate and, possibly, harm members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Bee, who uses the pronouns he and they to identify himself, said public libraries are not venues for expressing personal or political agendas.
“To any people in this room who may still be on the fence,” he said, “I implore you to educate yourselves on why the existence of queer people and knowledge of said existence is not harmful to your cisgender, heterosexual children but, instead, protects LGBTQ+ children who are already four times as likely to attempt suicide as their peers. And if that number continues to rise, the blood will be on your hands.”
Annie Nguyen, a resident from Clovis, said, “I just think that it’s cowardly to try to silence perspectives in books that you don’t agree with. It’s heartbreaking to see grown adults be so scared of children’s books. To be quite honest, I feel if you don’t listen, we’ll just keep coming back and keep writing letters and keep making comments and keep sending emails. And if you don’t listen, we’ll eventually vote you out.”
THE QUESTION OF OVERREACH
Clovis resident Kim Fox-Christensen questioned the Board’s authority to implement the act.
“The board’s mandate states, quote, ‘The board may not direct or control the day-to-day operations of a county department or otherwise limit the exercise of discretion invested by law in a particular officer’,” Fox-Christensen said. “By suggesting some concept of review, you are directing and controlling the day-to-day operations of a county department where professional librarians maintain order.”
Sanger Unified School District Librarian Sara Smith was more succinct in her statements.
“The committee established by the Parents Matter Act is government overreach,” she said. “It will bog down the library in a bureaucratic quagmire.”