Citrus County got the attention of the country this week and it was not a positive experience.
Possibly, we as a community can learn something from what happened.
As has been reported in the Chronicle, and just about every news outlet in the country, some members of our county commission got their feathers ruffled over a library proposal to add a digital version of the New York Times to the inventory available to residents.
Commissioners Scott Carnahan and Ron Kitchen used a routine library budget presentation to create a firestorm. Commissioner Carnahan was the most flamboyant in his opposition. He said he agreed with President Trump that the New York Times was “fake news” and said “I don’t want the New York Times in this county.”
I am pretty sure that Commissioner Carnahan has never been a reader of the New York Times and could not identify anything specifically that he felt was fake.
No vote was taken, but the commissioners indicated they wanted the item nixed. No money was saved, because the library is a separate taxing unit and the $2,700 remains in the budget.
The reaction to the emotional outburst has been overwhelming.
News stories and television reports spread like wildfire. Cable TV pundits had great fun at our expense. The theme of the reports was disturbing — this backwards Florida town wants to ban the nation’s best newspaper. Surely book burning will be the next thing on our agenda.
Thousands of emails flooded into the county offices. The county telephone system was overwhelmed with calls. The county tourism office got complaints and tourists made threats to cancel their vacations here. It’s hard for some of the county staff to get any real work done while dealing with the huge flow of opinions.
The executives at the county chamber and economic development offices just slumped in their chairs fearing the lost opportunity of people who don’t want to be associated with us.
This newspaper — which first wrote the story about the commission decision — has been flooded with calls, complaints and emails from people wondering what the heck is going on.
And here’s the rub: The whole incident was simply political grandstanding that backfired.
The Citrus County Commission has absolutely nothing to do with the contentious debate on a national level. I don’t care if you are liberal, conservative or in the middle, I think we can all agree that the national debate has become more contentious and destructive than ever before.
Freedom of the press and speech are core values in America that have nothing to do with political affiliation. Our commissioners positioned themselves to object to the U.S. Constitution? Really? This is a fight you want to wage in Inverness, Florida?
Prior to this outbreak, the contentiousness of the national fight really has not impacted what goes on with local government. For the most part, people treat each other with respect even when they disagree on the issues being debated. Citrus County, and many small communities throughout the nation, have continued to get the regular work done while the guys in Washington play their games. And that has been the real strength of America for centuries — we don’t need Washington to tell us how to get the roads paved, trash picked up and water pumped.
I am sure the two commissioners involved in this fiasco didn’t give it much thought, but they have pulled the national debate into local government when it has no place here. That debate was felt at the Tuesday commission meeting when people complained and some said ugly things. Commissioners got shrill in their replies. Anger, distrust and embarrassment was evident everywhere.
The Citrus County Library system is an excellent example of how we do things right. We pay a separate property tax and hire a professional staff to make the decisions about programming, content and operations.
County Commissioners don’t make decisions about books, newspapers or programs in the library based on the political insecurities and/or affiliations they might have.
They also don’t make the decisions about what paving material the road department uses, what bullets the sheriff buys or what day the tax collector sends out her notices.
That’s not their job. Staff does that work without regard to politics.
Libraries are filled with ideas — many of which may conflict with the personal beliefs of our elected officials. We don’t elect county commissioners to censor information at any level. Taxpayers and library patrons are smart enough to make their own decisions. Librarians are professionals who live by an ethical code that bars political influence.
For the record, the Chronicle delivers the New York Times to many households in Citrus County. It’s expensive.
For the record, the New York Times is the best newspaper in our nation.
We also deliver the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, USA Today, Tampa Bay Times and the New York Post to readers who want to consume that information. While I like the Chronicle the best and wish every household in the county got it delivered, I understand that many people want to take advantage of the options. Freedom to digest facts and opinions is a core value of America.
Having digital versions of the Times and other publications at the library might not be good for our delivery business.
But not everything is about us. Commissioners could learn from that.
Contributions have been offered from around the county — and around the country — to get the Citrus County Library the funding it needs to get this digital service up in the library. Saving money is not an excuse. It never was.
Fortunately, three members of the county commission have been pretty silent on this issue. They can’t believe the unnecessary mess that has been made by a few commissioners pandering for political support.
Commissioner Brian Coleman has asked that the issue be placed on the agenda. Without debate or justification, the commissioners should approve the library budget and go back to debating the issues they were elected to handle.
Gerry Mulligan is the publisher of the Chronicle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.