Hamilton County Commissioners appoint new library board member

Educator's appointment comes as the library board mulls a controversial plan that could mean the sale of a downtown library facility

The downtown campus of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County - Hailey Bollinger
Hailey Bollinger
The downtown campus of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

Hamilton County Commissioners on Nov. 1 voted to appoint Karen Clemons to the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County’s Board of Trustees.

Clemons replaces trustee Allen Zaring, whose term expired in September. The appointment comes as the library’s governing body mulls a controversial plan to decommission the north building of the library’s downtown campus and possibly sell it to private developers.

Hamilton County Commission President Todd Portune praised Zaring, first appointed in 2010, during the commission’s Nov. 1 meeting, but said it was time for a change on the board. Portune acknowledged the controversy around the north building as he discussed Clemons’ appointment. Portune last month had stern words for the board, which drew up its plan for the downtown facility without much public input.

“There has been a lot of interest in this appointment and in whether the board would be continuing the service of Mr. Zaring … or whether the board would move in a different direction and choose to appoint a different member,” Portune said. “Ms. Clemons meets the needs that we see of having good, strong, active, vocal and diverse representation. I told Mr. Zaring that we were grateful for his work, grateful for his service, but with all things considered, that it was the decision of the board that we needed to move in a different direction.”

Opponents of the library’s north building plan were boosting their own pick, University of Cincinnati academic librarian Sean Crowe, as Zaring’s replacement. However, members of the group say they’re cautiously optimistic about Clemons, citing her long background as a public school educator. Clemons has yet to decide where she falls on the library's facility plan.

“It seems like the appointment of an educator is a step in the right direction in terms of the board’s makeup,” said Keep Our Library member Vince Tafolla. “It’s good to get somebody who has shown a commitment to education and to children, rather than a developer or corporate lawyer.”

Zaring is a vice president with J.P. Morgan Asset Management. He has also served as director of the Library Foundation. Other board members have similar backgrounds in business.

Clemons is the principal at St. Bernard Elementary School. She started as a vice principal at St. Bernard-Elmwood Place City Schools in 2013. Prior to that, Clemons spent a decade as a teacher at Mt. Healthy City Schools, Fairfield City Schools and Cincinnati College Preparatory Academy, according to the application she submitted to become trustee.

“Karen represents balance to the board,” commissioner Denise Driehaus said. “Her focus, obviously, is on education and on kids. To me, that’s so important to creating some balance and some responsiveness on the library board.”

After extending the application deadline, Hamilton County Commissioners received six applications for the trustee position, including Zaring’s, Clemons’ and Crowe’s. Other applicants included Jeffrey Hall, principal at Cincinnati Public Schools’ Frederick Douglass Elementary School, attorney Joshua Langdon and retired educator and former CPS board president Susan Cranley, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley’s mother.

Activists say the board is still not engaging the public in a satisfactory way when it comes to the plans for its downtown north building. At the October board meeting, the board declined a request to hear 30 minutes of public input about the plan.

“The board has consistently refused to answer the public’s questions or address our concerns,” Tafolla said. “There’s not a really good way to address the board on an ongoing basis.”

Portune promised that the commission would push for more public input and transparency as the library moved forward with its planning process. He said he would introduce a resolution at the next county commission meeting instructing the library board to hold public meetings to gather input about its plan.

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