Portune: Library board vote to close north building 'disturbing'

County Commission president says even commissioners were unaware the library board was voting on a possible sale.

Sep 13, 2017 at 2:12 pm
The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County's downtown branch - Hailey Bollinger
Hailey Bollinger
The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County's downtown branch

Hamilton County Commission President Todd Portune today railed against a June vote that could close and sell the north building of the downtown public library. Portune said the vote was taken without any public input and that commissioners themselves didn’t know about the plan until after the vote. Portune called that “disturbing.”

“Apparently, there was no public discussion allowed on the topic until board members made the decision that they did,” he said. “Our expectation is that they would do business in an open and public manner. In addition to (the public) not being informed or involved, I would certainly have expected the members of the board that we appointed to have consulted us, to have shared their intentions and the issue with us before they made a decision that involves a public asset. I think it’s safe to say this board has a lot of concerns.”

CityBeat first reported on the plan to close and re-purpose the building last year. The closure and potential sale of the building are part of a larger facilities plan that would move a number of circulation tasks out of downtown and consolidate the building’s Children’s Learning Center, Maker Space and other services in the south building. No reductions in service or staffing would result, the library says.

A committee of the library’s board recommended the plan in October of 2016, and it was approved by the full board this past June. At that time, the library retained the services of the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation, or 3CDC, to explore the sale of the building to private buyers.

Critics — including local chapters of Democratic Socialists of America, Socialist Alternative, The Library Defense Network and others — have decried the potential privatization of the public building since the library board’s vote in June. More than 20 came to protest the decision at an Aug. 8 board meeting and Aug. 22 town hall meeting the groups held at the library.

“This is very disturbing and it looks very bad,” Vince Tafolla, an opponent of the sale, said of the lack of public input. “Add to that, the apparent undervaluation of the building, which makes it look very likely that they’re looking to sell the building to private interests. But this is public space — it belongs to us. They really need to engage us in decisions on this matter. We really need to draw a line and say ‘no privatization of this property.’ ”

The library spent $39.1 million on the land and building, along with the walkway between it and the south building, in the late 1990s. However, today the building has only appraised at about $8.5 million. That appraisal was done by real estate firm CBRE.

"It is pretty rare for a property that encompasses an entire city block to become available, although a couple recent deals have been done like the newly announced Kroger being only a stones' throw away," Michael Moran, CBRE senior vice president, told The Cincinnati Enquirer earlier this year. "This area is more conducive to midrise development of five- to 10-story buildings rather than the high-rise projects that are expected on Fourth, Fifth and Sixth streets," Moran said. "It creates an opportunity for locally minded developers and end-users who are looking for an urban spot to plant their flag."

Moran’s father, William Moran, serves on the library board and cast a vote in favor of the plan to close and re-purpose the building. Moran is also on the development and finance committee of 3CDC. Those a potential conflicts of interest, say opponents of selling the building.

“I see a real conflict of interest there,” said David Tornheim, an opponent of the sale who attended the commissioners meeting.  “We think there should be an independent appraisal. There are a lot of corporate connections (on the board).”

Another person on the seven-member board of trustees getting scrutiny is Board President Allen Zaring, whose term ends Sept. 30. Critics of the sale say they’d like to someone more in tune with the library’s public mission take his place.

Portune could be open to that, hinting that he’s not happy with the four members of the board the county commission appoints.

“We can’t appoint people and then they’re out of sight and out of mind and they don’t interact with us,” he said. “That’s not the case with a lot of other boards — they do interact with us — but in this scenario the failure to have had that occur does not meet my expectation, nor I am sure does it meet this board’s expectations.

“We’re using all opportunities to appoint members to boards to introduce new members into the mix who meet elementary qualifications, among other things,” Portune said. “When we get to the library board, it seems to me that you also want to have qualifications that are consistent with the public purpose and function of a library system. Those elements and considerations I’m certain will be among the criteria we’ll consider when we consider the upcoming appointment we’ll have with the expiration of Mr. Zaring’s term.”

Library officials say no final plans have been made for the north building. Portune has called a public meeting between the county commission and the library board. It will take place Sept. 18 at 11 a.m. in room 610 of the County Administration Building at 138 E. Court Street.

Board of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County:

President Allen Zaring*

Vice President Barbara W. Trauth*

Secretary William Moran*

Board Member Ross Wright+

Board Member Monica Kohen*

Board Member Robert Hendon+

Board Member Elizabeth LaMacchia+

*Appointed by Hamilton County Commissioners

+Appointed by Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas judges