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With friends like these, you tell me

Stephen Kessler.



Op-ed in the SC Sentinel, 4/2/2022


When I returned to Santa Cruz in 2006 after some 16 years away, most of them on the Mendocino Coast, I soon signed up as a dues-paying member of Friends of the Santa Cruz Public Libraries. I’ve always supported libraries—librarians are among my unsung culture heroes—and during my years up north I became a director of Friends of Coast Community Library in Point Arena. The library, at that time an independent grassroots institution not yet affiliated with the county system and renting a tiny house for its collection, was embarking on a fundraising effort to build a new library on a lot just north of downtown. As part of that campaign, I volunteered to overhaul the Friends’ newsletter.


In collaboration with the local weekly Independent Coast Observer, I turned the newsletter into a 12-page tabloid literary journal that appeared quarterly as a special section of the ICO. Long story short, with the public-relations assistance of The Redwood Coast Review, we raised the money we needed to purchase the lot; by then a general store on Main Street had become available, so we bought that instead and with a local architect’s donated design, and volunteer labor, we renovated the building and before long we had a new, far more spacious and much improved library.


Returning to Santa Cruz after that experience, I joined FSCPL and in 2016 voted yes on Measure S, which promised renovation or reconstruction of our county libraries, including the flagship downtown branch. As you know if you’ve been following this story, the community was surprised to learn that city management’s plan was to combine the downtown library with a parking garage several blocks away from its historic location in Civic Center. I wasn’t the only one who thought this was a lousy idea, and I began to write a series of columns explaining my opposition. In the tagline at the bottom of one such column I identified myself, accurately, as a member of the Friends.


Soon after that, I received an irate email from then-president of the Friends, Vivian Rogers, berating me for mentioning my membership in her organization under such a dissenting opinion (on the Opinion page, no less). Next thing I knew, my membership was revoked, Soviet style. So much for libraries’ famous commitment to the First Amendment.


Flash forward to last Sunday when Peace United Church hosted “A Public Issues Forum on the Future of Downtown” featuring representatives of the Friends—who favor what has evolved (thanks to public pushback) from a garage-library into a “mixed-use” library-housing- retail-garage—and of Our Downtown, Our Future, which favors renovation of the existing library and preserving the open space studded with heritage trees known as Lot 4, where the city wants to build its new block-long, up to eightstory structure.


You’ve heard the arguments by now, but I was struck by one exchange during the Q& A. An audience member and volunteer for FSCPL asked why the volunteers had not been polled for their views on this controversial issue before the Friends publicly took a position. Martín Gómez, vice president of the Friends, replied half-apologetically that the Friends’ leadership had not done their due diligence on this question, and blamed that on the pandemic of the past two years, which somehow prevented them from consulting the volunteers much less the membership before taking a political stand for the organization.


This decision is emblematic of the top-down ethos epitomized by Rogers’ peremptory purging of me years ago. The pandemic happened long after this controversy had begun, so Gómez’s half-baked excuse is flat-out false, a shameless attempt to distort history in the interest of advancing an antidemocratic agenda imposed by the managerial class over popular opinion. Our Downtown, Our Future’s ballot measure — signatures for which are still being collected—will give voters a chance to let the city know what the community wants on Lot 4: a multistory ziggurat, or a green oasis amid the increasing height and density of downtown.


Stephen Kessler’s column appears on Saturdays.

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