After voting Dec. 20 not to pursue a controversial plan to sell one of the buildings at its flagship downtown branch, the board that controls the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County is left to attempt a difficult pivot: convincing Hamilton County voters, including those angered by the formerly proposed sale, to double their tax contributions to the library system.
At a meeting Dec. 27 at the downtown library, the seven-member board attempted to begin building that bridge. But after months of wrangling over the potential sale of the library’s downtown north building, activists critical of the board's handling of its new facilities plan and other recent moves still have questions.
“When I first heard the news about the selling of the north building, I was horrified,” said Phillip Jacobs. “It’s a traumatic scar. Obviously I’m grateful that the sale won’t happen, but still, the fact the attempt was made…”
The roughly 40 attendees at the meeting wanted to know what would happen to the north building now that it’s not being sold. (Answer: It’s not clear yet).
“We are not selling the north building,” Moran said. “We don’t know what we’re going to do with it yet. Things will change, but we don’t know what it’s going to look like yet. We will use input from the staff, department heads and patrons. But it will always be open to the public.”
Attendees brought up connections between board members, specifically Moran, and large corporate interests in Cincinnati. Moran sits on a committee of the Cincinnati City Center Development Corporation, which was enlisted to explore the sale of the building. Moran shrugged off his connections, saying they didn’t amount to a conflict of interest.
Activists also criticized what they called a “top down” culture at the library and the recent firing of library employees like Court Motley. Board chair William Moran read a statement from the library’s lawyers saying the board wouldn’t discuss personnel matters. Moran denied that Motley was fired due to a physical condition that means she must sit down periodically.
Activists critiqued a shift that has library staff out on the library floor with computers instead of at a desk answering questions.
“We really have had very few complaints about it from the public,” library Director Kim Fender said. “I haven’t had a public complaint about it in over a year.”
Many in the room said they didn’t like the new arrangement, however, and some tied it to employee discontent.
“Part of Court’s firing was related to this desk-less model,” said Ben Stockwell, an activist with the Our Library, Our Decision Coalition. “From what I understand, a lot of the feedback, at this branch in particular, has been negative toward the desk-less model, and that’s just being shrugged off as a refusal to change.”
Some at the meeting asked board members, excluding new member Karen Clemmons, to resign to restore trust in the library, a request board chair Moran and others flatly refused.
Others struck a slightly more conciliatory tone but reminded the board that the library would need their support to pass its upcoming 1 mill levy in May 2018. Library officials say they need that levy, which, combined with an existing 1 mill levy, would raise about $34 million a year, to avoid a $3.3 million deficit in 2019. The levies would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $60 a year. The money would be used to renovate and build branches, expand handicap accessibility and possibly construct a new circulation center for the system.
“We desperately need the library levy,” Moran said. “If we don’t get a levy passed this time or the next time, we’ll have to look at downsizing.”
But attendees said the library board still needs to win back trust.
“We’re people who are passionate about the library,” said Mary Shartman. “Were some of the people you’d have campaigning for you. But not with a lack of trust, and especially when we’re told our opinions are invalid.”