Public Boards and The Limits of Representation

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This was written on behalf of the Our library Our Decision Coalition and was originally meant to run in a print publication in late February. That fell through, so I post it here instead.

Who exactly do our “public” boards represent? Recent articles by CityBeat and WCPO draw attention to a study suggesting that appointed boards governing public entities in Cincinnati come from backgrounds very different from the populations they serve. According to CityBeat, the study shows that board members “are more likely to be white, wealthy and men than Cincinnati’s overall population.” In the Our Library, Our Decision! (OLOD) campaign to stop the sale of the library North Building and change the toxic work environment there, we have seen how the board of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County (PLCH) matches the study’s findings. In fact, we have repeatedly drawn attention to the fact that PLCH’s board is made up of predominantly white, affluent individuals whose ties to corporate power are often at odds with the interests of the rest of us.

What both articles miss is the affiliation of members of these boards (and their families) to the upper echelons of corporate power in Cincinnati. The inequality in our city and county creates divisions that prevent working people—the vast majority of us—from serving on these boards, owing to either a lack of opportunity or a lack of resources. On the other hand, our county’s richest residents and their families often have the extra time and professional development imperatives to serve on these boards. In the case of PLCH, board members boast personal or immediate family connections to the boards of 3CDC, CBRE, Fifth Third Bank, Cincinnati Bell, GE, Graydon Head, KMK, Taft, and Kroger. There are other ties to large charities, at least one prison oversight board, and private schools.

In spite of what they say publicly about civic-minded, philanthropic intentions, people don’t serve on these boards out of the goodness of their hearts. As former Cincinnati resident and Democratic Socialists of America activist Dan La Botz wrote in his landmark study Who Rules Cincinnati?, “[N]eighborhoods have been starved of economic resources, the corporations, their alliances, and their friends in government have directed hundreds of millions of dollars into downtown and riverfront projects intended to secure corporate investments and to generate profits.”

This is precisely what we have seen throughout the successful campaign to save the Main Library’s North Building and our current effort to secure the reinstatement of unjustly fired library worker Court Motley. The interests of the members of the PLCH board are diametrically opposed to those of its patrons and staff. The board represents the interests of capital, not labor: Its members benefit greatly by virtue of owning and controlling large amounts of property and wealth. So while the sale of the North Building or the firing of disabled workers may seem perverse to OLOD organizers and the public, the profit motive makes things perfectly reasonable to rich members of the board, even if they don’t say so.

At the end of 2017, Trustee Ross Wright stepped down from the PLCH board. OLOD is currently navigating the obscure passageways in an attempt to have a say in who should take his place, ideally in order to get someone more attuned to the needs of the city’s working class appointed. We have, however, hit a dead end: Wright’s chair is one of three appointed by the judges of the Court of Common Pleas, who have no apparent mechanism for the public to have a say in these decisions. This is only slightly worse than what we encountered when the term of Allen Zaring was up in the fall. After an Enquirer article profiled several people, who submitted applications to the County Commissioners to fill the vacancy, a last minute extension allowed a local public school administrator to apply and be selected for the position. OLOD also had a friend of the campaign submit an application.

Unfortunately, adequate representation alone won’t solve issues that we face as working class people who enjoy and even rely on services that are governed by the rich. A keen example of this can be seen in the case of the Over-the-Rhine Community Council, which is democratically elected, a better arrangement than most boards. At one point the council was made up mainly of poor neighborhood residents who were resisting profit-driven redevelopment of OTR. Rather than challenging the council in its own ground, rich residents went around the board altogether, forming the OTR Chamber of Commerce, and starving the community council of its money and power. They even openly explained that this was what they were doing. This maneuvering was one of the measures that allowed gentrification to take a dramatic step forward starting in the 1990’s.

When we enter into their spaces—trying to take power from the “inside”—the rich will simply move their resources somewhere else. That’s because their structures have historically been stacked against us, and are usually set up in such a way that means working class power is deliberately undermined. The board of Cincinnati Municipal Housing Authority board, for example, has a space for a resident, but since 2012 reserves two spaces for suburbanites. This reactionary provision was put in place after a movement in Green Township opposed a few dozen units of public housing slated to be developed in the suburban community. Opposition to the expansion of (and often the existence of) public housing persists on the board itself, even while tens of thousands of poor people in our country desperately need it.

Even if working people held the full slate of every public governance board, the resources that our libraries and public housing services rely on would continue to be diminished by the booms and busts of the capitalist economy, which undervalues these services because they are unprofitable and administers deep cuts to these services during periods of economic decline.

The wealthy of our city should be held accountable by the rest of us, but are protected by virtue of their monopoly control of the economy. Independent, working class movements can win victories—like stopping the sale of the North Building. These victories show us that the power rests in our hands, and importantly our numbers, if we can inspire working people to fight back. Through our organizing, democratic accountability structures need to be built that can challenge the power of these boards, make bold demands of those in power, and call into question their legitimacy once and for all.