INVERNESS — First, the news.
The Citrus County commissioners voted on Tuesday to reject a digital subscription to the New York Times for 70,000 local library cardholders. A motion for the county to move forward with the $2,700 digital subscription, instead of its current print subscription, failed 3-2.
But as with everything else in this very now scandal, the vote went well beyond the news.
This was supposedly about words.
Specifically those in the New York Times, and whether or how library cardholders of this West Central county should read them. There were also the words from Citrus commissioners, who in the name of President Donald Trump, pushed back on a new digital subscription to the Times for the library. “Fake news,” one had said, but then new words came, landing in the commissioners’ inboxes, from all around the country.
“Manatees,” and where could they be seen outside Citrus, a tourist destination that some people now wanted to boycott ... in the name of (or perhaps a sign of) the Times?
“Laughing stock," which Commissioner Ron Kitchen had referenced to describe his county as he accused the local newspaper, the Citrus County Chronicle, of throwing their home “under the bus internationally.” He had actually been the first to question the subscription at a meeting last month.
Four-letter words and misspelled words. Words injected like hot air into an expanding culture war, hanging over the county seat in Inverness. There were no last words, only loud ones.
Since Oct. 24, when Citrus commissioners first discussed the subscriptions, two new candidates entered the 2020 presidential race. The public phase of the impeachment hearings surrounding Trump began in Washington D.C. And in historic downtown Inverness, workers hung tinsel decorations for Christmas.
In that span, the county’s conservative majority, or at least some of it, got fired up. Meanwhile, protesters filled an interim meeting earlier this month to admonish the commissioners.
On Tuesday, one of the first speakers said he showed up at the Citrus County Courthouse at 11:15 a.m., an hour and forty five minutes before the meeting began. He had come to speak against the digital subscription. So did many others.
They donned Trump hats and military hats. They lined up single file from the lectern, next to the placard that read: “Gentlemen, please remove hats and caps while in Commission Chambers.”
One man read a book, “Triggered,” by Donald Trump Jr. A woman in a pink “Women for Trump” shirt wore American flag boots on her feet and a Confederate flag purse on her shoulder.
As they waited for the meeting to begin, a man with a Trump 2020 pin asked the guy sitting next to him: “If we are responsible for climate change, then why can’t we stop the hurricanes?”
The guy standing next to him later fired back: “You really think Hillary Clinton won by three million votes? She probably lost by two million.”
Their conversation was broken when the local clerk called for everyone’s attention to start the invocation. She made a plea to the Lord: “Come, be with us, and let our lives be a light to a dark world.”
At first, the commissioners thought it was funny. When they discussed the digital subscription during the meeting Oct. 24, laughter spilled from the dais. There weren’t many people in the room to hear it.
“Fake news, I agree with President Trump,” Commissioner Scott Carnahan said. “I don’t want the New York Times in this county. I don’t agree with it, I don’t like 'em, it’s fake news and I’m voting no.”
The commissioners withdrew the motion to approve the subscription and moved on.
Or so they thought.
What followed was a history lesson on the year 2019, typed in real time, with fury and haste. Some people called or offered donations to the library.
At a subsequent meeting, Kitchen prayed. “We can no longer have a conversation between one another," he said. Later: “I’m supposed to apologize for being male, I won’t. I’m supposed to apologize for being white, I won’t. That’s the way God made me.”
Carnahan mentioned the First Amendment, and the Second, saying he was an engaged citizen who used both. “I can read," he said.
A former teacher called the commissioners “scallywags.” Another woman said they were practicing “medieval censorship."
The commissioners said the libraries already received a couple hard copies of the Times. They weren’t censoring anything.
The conversation only grew more heated. It hit a crescendo Tuesday. So many people attended, officials opened up an overflow room. Three sheriff’s deputies stood by the door.
“The more you give in on these issues to a noisy faction, the more that faction will demand," said Michael Fuller, of Lecanto. Later, he declined to speak to a reporter. “I don’t talk to papers,” he said.
“Vote no or at least delay it until after the election to keep it from being such a political hot potato,” said Valentine Kalavsky, from Inverness, who added that the New York Times is against Christians.
“You let the New York Times in and what’s coming next?" asked Cheryl Melton, 75, of Citrus Springs. "What radical publication is coming next?”
Beryl St. Jacques, of Beverly Hills, chided the commissioners, who had repeatedly asked for civility as people laughed during other speakers’ time.
“You’ve asked us to come here and be polite to each other,” she said. "You were not polite last month.”
Elissa Malcohn, of Beverly Hills, said the commissioners were gaslighting by saying they were being bullied.
Valerie Esser, of Floral City, said all they did was “parrot” Trump.
“I assume you all have brains,” she said. “So y’all can think for yourselves.”
Gloria Sfameni, of Citrus Hills, implored: “We have enough already going on in this world.” She said she was from Brooklyn, but never read the Times. “It just didn’t turn me on.”
The commissioners were set to vote on whether to replace the existing library print subscription to the Times ($2,900), with a digital subscription at a savings of $200.
Several had already made up their minds before the public commented.
"If the New York Times wants to be in Citrus County, let them donate,” Kitchen said.
"The bottom line is I’m not backing down. I’m not voting for this,” Carnahan said. Going further, he didn’t think public money should pay for any news subscriptions.
Commissioner Jimmie Smith held up his phone.
"I've yet to find a cause to pay for something that covers topics in the news that you can't already find some place else for free,” he said.
As the hours ticked by, Daniel Carmichael, 65, sat rod-straight in the middle of the meeting room. Behind a gray beard and thin glasses, he stared at the commissioners and occasionally held up a sign. Black marker, white poster board.
“I didn’t fight for your freedom just so you could vote mine away," it read.
When he finally took his turn at the lectern, Carmichael, who said he was in the U.S. Air Force, held another sign, with the words “ad hominem." He told everyone in the room to go home and look it up.
If they did, they’d find two definitions from Merriam-Webster:
“Appealing to feelings or prejudices rather than intellect.”
“Marked by or being an attack on an opponent’s character rather than by an answer to the contentions made.”