Tulare County officials are in a national spotlight -- and the glare is not flattering.
A former county library worker has attracted support from outraged citizens, librarians and advocacy groups across the country. Brenda Biesterfeld contends she was fired for defying orders by reporting to police that she saw a man viewing child pornography at a library branch in Lindsay.
On March 4, officers arrested Donny Lynn Chrisler, 39, on suspicion of viewing child pornography. Two days later, Biesterfeld was let go.
County officials say the two events were unrelated. But they acknowledge the timing is unfortunate.
"The fact that these two events occurred within a short time does not mean they are connected," said Connie Conway, chairwoman of the county Board of Supervisors, at a recent meeting. "However, we appreciate that the public's perception may be to the contrary."
County officials said Tuesday that they're willing to show records proving their account of her termination if Biesterfeld signs a waiver releasing the county from its obligation to protect employee confidentiality. Biesterfeld said Tuesday she is willing to do that -- but Friday still was waiting for advice from her lawyer.
Outrage afar and at home
The county's point of view is not attracting much notice, however, among those outraged by the suggestion that county bureaucrats were more concerned about following the rules than doing the right thing.
Peter Sprigg, vice president for policy of the conservative Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., scolded county officials last week on the group's Web site in a posting entitled "Fire Those Who Protect Child Porn Users, Not Those Who Report Them."
"One hopes that Biesterfeld will get her job back -- and that her porn-defending supervisors ... will lose theirs," Sprigg wrote.
In an interview, Sprigg said he learned of the case from the Liberty Counsel, another national conservative group that is providing Biesterfeld legal help.
"I was shocked by the story they recounted ... and by what I read in the news," Sprigg said. "We wanted to draw people's attention to it through the blog."
Other conservative and religious groups and Web sites -- Catholic Exchange, the Christian Post, Roman CatholicBlog.com and FreeConservatives.com, among others -- are talking up Biesterfeld's cause as well.
And Family Friendly Libraries, a national organization that advocates for child-safe policies at libraries, announced Thursday that Biesterfeld will receive the organization's Gold Star Award.
County spokesman Eric Coyne said officials worry some of the criticism may escalate beyond simple outrage.
"Some blog posts have made threats of violence against county employees over this, and we've notified law enforcement of those threats," he said.
County board chairwoman Conway says she has been startled by the hateful tone of some accusations.
"We take our responsibility seriously, and we certainly don't support porn in our libraries," she said. "My goodness, I'm a mother and a grandmother, and our board is made up of five very conservative people."
The county isn't getting a lot of sympathy even at home.
The Rev. Karen Stoffers, pastor of Lindsay United Methodist Church, said it's not a matter of politics, censorship or religion, but about common sense and responsibility.
"People are just offended," said Stoffers, whose church is across the street from the Lindsay library where Biesterfeld worked. "The thought of someone viewing child pornography just hits them at a base, gut level."
Stoffers organized a candlelight gathering that drew about 100 people in support of Biesterfeld last week; she said the outrage is over the perception that Biesterfeld was canned for doing "the right thing."
"People see it more as a civil issue," Stoffers said of conversations she has had with locals. "They see this as the county supervisors and the county librarian making bad choices and bad decisions."
Choices and decisions in this case date to Feb. 28, when Biesterfeld -- a mother of two -- says she saw Chrisler, a regular library patron who is deaf, acting strangely as he used a public computer in the library to access e-mail.
As she walked behind Chrisler to investigate, Biesterfeld said, she was shocked to see "a dozen or more pictures of nude blond boys, just showing everything."
Biesterfeld, just a few days shy of completing her six-month probation period with the library, said she called her supervisor, Judi Hill, to report the incident and ask what to do.
Biesterfeld said she was told to warn Chrisler not to do it again or he would be banned from the library. She added that when she asked whether she should call police, Hill told her no.
The library aide, however, went to Lindsay police the next day, Feb. 29, to report the incident -- even though she said she feared for her job. Police asked Biesterfeld to notify them when Chrisler next returned to the library.
Biesterfeld called police again March 4, after Chrisler logged on to one of the computers. Police reportedly found him viewing child pornography and, at his Lindsay home, discovered more child porn images.
"What's gotten me fired up about this is that Brenda would have felt threatened in her livelihood for doing the right thing," said Stoffers, the Lindsay pastor. "That by calling the police, her employment was in jeopardy."
County officials acknowledge that Biesterfeld's supervisor told her to simply warn Chrisler, but only because of miscommunication. Hill thought Biesterfeld had seen adult pornography, they say; she would have called police if she had understood that the images were of children.
Mary Minow, a former librarian who is now a Bay Area attorney specializing in library law and intellectual rights issues, says calling the police would be the right thing to do in that situation.
Minow -- a legal consultant to libraries across the country and a policy analyst for the California Association of Library Trustees and Commissioners -- said library workers must contact authorities when they see child pornography.
"I have no problem with a policy that has a library staffer notifying a supervisor first, but there has to be a supervisor readily accessible," she said.
Fired worker hopes for change
Following a lengthy closed session last week billed as an evaluation of Brian Lewis' performance as the head of county library operations, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors said Biesterfeld's firing was not connected to the child-porn investigation.
But the board asked retired Tulare County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Conn to investigate Biesterfeld's concerns and review the county's policies.
"I felt that is the fair and equitable thing to do," Conway said. "Our board really wants to do the right thing and get to the bottom of it."
Biesterfeld said she is dumbfounded by how widespread the attention to her story has become.
"I didn't think I'd lose my job, but I didn't think it would turn into anything like this, either," she said Thursday. "I guess I opened a political can of worms without even knowing it."
She said she hopes the public outcry will prompt changes in Tulare County's library system -- both in policies and in leadership.
"If things change, I would consider going back," she said. "I love the job."