Fifty-five participants and five panelists exchanged words of enthusiasm and pledged commitments to take positive action on behalf of our San Benito County Free Library. Elected officials, library experts, and community members found common ground:

  • Libraries matter in a democracy
  • While there are funding concerns, the community can make change happen; and
  • Elected officials must step up to the challenge

Members of the Library Action Committee invited five panelists to tackle the big question:

How can the San Benito County community achieve its vision of a fully functioning library?*

Moderated by Julie Morris, director of Vision San Benito County, the Forum panelists

  • Jerry Muenzer, County Supervisor, District 4
  • Elizabeth Martínez, Salinas Library Director
  • Doug Achterman, Gavilan College Head Librarian
  • Victor Gómez, Hollister City Council, District 4
  • Rob Bernosky, San Benito County Republicans

described personal experiences with libraries, in fact, with our very own Library. Supervisor Jerry Muenzer and Councilman Victor Gómez recalled the excitement of receiving their first library card. Gómez spoke of growing up in a small house and a big family, saying “My quiet room was the Library.” Gavilan Head Librarian Doug Achterman reminded us of the library’s central role in our democracy to include everyone; in the early days, only the privileged had access. Achterman emphasized the point: “If we want to support democracy, we must support libraries.”

Gary Byrne of the Community Foundation for San Benito County, invited to speak, reminded Forum participants of recent history when the library was funded at approximately $1M per year and now barely $500K. He said the library has been shrunk; for example, we have only 20 cents per person to buy books. [Last year] the Foundation received appeals from teachers to buy books with the same titles that had been locked up in their school libraries.** All of this while surrounding towns boast of first-class facilities like those in Gilroy and Castroville.

Librarian Elizabeth Martínez, with substantial experience in library development in Los Angeles and Salinas, agreed with Jerry Muenzer who retold the story: Libraries are not a mandated function in San Benito County. While police and fire services are required, library services are discretionary, so as a result, our Library has been the first to be cut. Librarian Martínez added that the mandated-discretionary conundrum “has always been used against us” and that “we are driven by fear, not by the positive.”

Achterman cited recent research confirming the notion that libraries provide—in too many homes—the only source of reading material; and the presence of reading material in a home is directly connected to poverty and crime rates. Access is critical. Other research demonstrates that libraries play a key role in improving a local economy. “Like police and fire, they are part of the infrastructure investment, not a luxury. The benefit to the economy can range from $1 invested resulting in $4 to $8 return.” Councilman Gómez added that access reduces the chance of young people entering the criminal justice system in the first place. “We prefer to give cops less work to do.”

So when Supervisor Muenzer was asked how the community could achieve a state-of-the-art library, he said it had to be “implemented with the driving force of the community itself.” Moderator Morris queried Mr. Muenzer on the specifics: “What should the community do? Try for a special tax? Form a special district?” In response, Muenzer made clear that the community must make that decision. “We can assist, but implementation must come from the community.”

“We can do this,” chimed Rob Bernosky, “I don’t think it’s going to be easy, but I have been personally involved in two such initiatives: one with a school and the other Bolado Park that lost all its state funding. [As a result] I joined the Heritage Foundation and this was our biggest fund raising year.” Councilman Gómez assured that as long as the people understand what they’re being asked to support, they will support an initiative. He added, “We need a public campaign . . . elected leaders need to step up and say libraries are important to us.”

“We are an ag community, but we’re missing employers” [representation], insisted Rob Bernosky who added that the youngsters using the library today are the employees of agriculture’s future. “They can sell it to the community for us.” He added that in this community, “things important to us get done.”

Librarian Martínez tickled the crowd with “Don’t mess with Friends [of the Library]! I don’t know about you politicians, but you don’t mess with Friends!” Martínez shared her experience working with determined community volunteers who, at times, she wished would stop coming to her office but who, nevertheless, started with a closed library and finished with one open seven days a week.

Visitor and audience participant, Natalie Rencher, director of King’s County Library, mind mapped the earlier discussions and identified funding as the key. “You’ll need a coming together. Strength comes when you are ‘boundaryless’.” Ms. Rencher asked about a library facilities master plan. Friends of the Library president, Jillian Wilson, assured the group that, indeed, our Library has a plan, and that further, like Salinas, there is a campaign underway to get a library card to every child in K12 schools.

Hard-hitting questions from the audience surfaced sticky points. Bill Tiffany asked, “If the community is able to pass a general tax, would you [elected officials] be willing to commit a certain percentage to the Library?” Supervisor Muenzer responded, “If the community determined that this is what they want, I would be committed to it.” Councilman Gómez clarified that officials could not promise such a set aside without it being a special tax, but once this is sorted out, he said, ”I would support it. Absolutely!” He added that “. . . we need to do it; one can’t say ‘if you want to do it, fine’. No, we need to speak up. Elected leaders must take a position.” Supervisor Muenzer said, “I feel I already have. In this year’s budget sessions, I took a lot of pressure but I voted to keep funding the Library. I also voted yes for Janelle Cox to explore a general tax initiative. I have taken my knocks from those who say we should fund police, not the Library.”

Leading the Forum wrap-up, Gary Byrne asked, “Where were you elected leaders 20 years ago?” Mr. Bryne was referring to a scuttled initiative to build a library that—at the time—would have been seeded at 80% of cost by the state. “But it’s not just a library anymore; it’s a community center, a seniors’ place.” He added that the community needs to know the facts, so we need to do better as story tellers. “These politicians are on the record supporting the Library.”

In a follow-up message to the Forum, Salinas Librarian Martínez wrote, “Last night I heard a beautiful chorus of commitment for a new San Benito County Library in Hollister.  I am impressed by the political voices of support, and the determination of the Library Action Committee.  Keep singingly loudly, as the alternative is to give up on education and the desire for an inclusive and beautiful learning environment of a new public library.”

Twelve audience participants asked to be added to the Library Action Committee. If you would like to join or simply be added to the information email list, send your request to or call 408.506.0801.

If you missed the October 23rd Forum, watch for a second scheduled for November 20th, again at the San Benito County Library from 5:30 pm to 7:30 pm. Still in planning is another Forum to be conducted in Spanish. Announcements will appear on the Calendar and Bulletin Board of BenitoLink.

*San Benito County Free Library Strategic Plan

Community Vision San Benito County

**School libraries have since reopened.