East Cleveland Public Library: The Region's Best Theater

William Fambrough confronts the board, with police in tow, earlier this month.
  • William Fambrough confronts the board, with police in tow, earlier this month.

The East Cleveland Public Library’s Board of Trustees has become a literal laughing stock. By the end of Monday evening’s two-and-a-half-hour meeting, the library’s basement conference room had descended to bedlam.

Trustees were shouting, thrusting manuals and rules of governance aloft with biblical fervor; others were shaking their heads in bafflement and embarrassment; the puppet president Charles E. Bibb was pounding his gavel against a plastic table while embattled secretary William Fambrough read the audience “some policy” after futzing with a broken mic. Everyone was calling for order while actively creating the opposite.

The public, viewing the proceedings at close range as they chowed on chicken and salad, were laughing hysterically — never has a city’s dysfunction been at once so entertaining and so sad.

The Library Board is a (theoretically) seven-member body which, along with the School Board, represents East Cleveland’s peripheral loci of power and pursuit of same. In December, 2013, the board ousted library director Sheba Marcus-Bey in a contentious 4-3 vote, the same boys-against-girls configuration that had characterized most of the Board’s voting of late.

Marcus-Bey’s dismissal was and still is considered groundless, given her stellar performance in seven months of service, though current library employees say that Marcus-Bey hired friends and relatives and paid them at a higher rate than workers who’d been there for 15 or more years.

Since Marcus-Bey’s abrupt dismissal, interim director Monisa Ramseur has reigned with what some on the board view as inefficiency and lack of transparency. Her lengthy director’s report Monday chronicled what she viewed as the library’s central problems — zero accountability, blurred lines in leadership roles, a disregard for policies and procedures — and a grander suspicion: that the library’s board had been “sabotaged” in order to create financial and operational disaster so severe that a larger entity would have to take over.

That fear and suspicion is important because it’s both a microcosm and echo of the city of East Cleveland at large: a city financially mismanaged and on the precipice of ruin, but a city, nonetheless, resistant to change.

The newest ruin that has visited the library is — predictably — a financial one. As of midnight Sunday, the library no longer has liability insurance. Fiscal officer Charlene Hollowell announced the news in a defensive fiscal report which also included the jolly revelations that $82,000 and $400,000 were missing from the budgets in 2010 and 2012, respectively. An auditor is currently reviewing the library’s books line by line.

As for the insurance, Hollowell told the bewildered Fambrough that she brought the issue to the board in December and that she’s been pursuing options since April, 2013. During that time, no less than five companies have declined to cover the library. A sixth and final insurance company may yet grant them a policy with an increased deductible.

The ramifications if this last-ditch effort fails, or alternate contingency plans, weren’t discussed. The meeting soon became a shouting match about William Fambrough and his right to a trusteeship.

Fambrough and his crony Devin Branch (former board secretary and current Vice-President, who was not present Monday) were voted out of office in a board meeting on Jan. 7, 2014.

On Jan. 13, the School Board also gave them the boot. Fambrough and Branch, who installed Bibb as President and themselves as secretary and vice president without board approval, will not take the hint. It would seem that everyone wants them gone. But they continue to claim that no one has the authority to remove them: Not the school board; not the library board itself; not even County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty who, in October, 2013, issued a written response to Fambrough — distributed in a bluster Monday night — confirming that the School Board that appoints trustees has the concomitant power to remove them.

But no dice. President Charles Bibb sent an email on Jan. 31 to Asst. County Prosecutor Brian Gutowski seeking clarification from a legal advisor, an email to which he claimed he has not yet received an answer and an email which he seemed to think would settle all disputes.

During the meeting, Trustee Mary Rice and the school board’s new appointee, Otis “O” Mays, a known pedophile, convicted on multiple charges of indecent exposure, voted to suspend certain governing rules, voted to appoint a new chair for the remainder of the meeting, voted to officially remove William Fambrough — all while Fambrough himself quietly tried to read his manual aloud and Charles Bibb screamed about his trump-card email. At 9:30 p.m., Bibb announced that the meeting was over. There had been no time for public comment.

For now, two equally pernicious sides have emerged:

Here’s one: Fambrough and Branch are power-hungry profiteers, using the library’s coffers for personal use and supplemental income for businesses on the side. Fambrough’s reluctance to part with his seat, in this view, is interpreted as his fear of losing access to the library’s funds, which he may or may not be pilfering in cooperation with interim director Monisa Ramseur.

Here’s the other: The School Board wants Fambrough and Branch out of the picture because they represent the staunchest opposition to Sheba Marcus-Bey, whom the School Board wants back. Marcus-Bey was in fact dismissed for cause — hiring friends and relatives at unfair wages — and Fambrough is a good guy on the library’s side. The School Board went so far as to appoint Otis “O” Mays, who at one time reportedly held a 15-year-old at gunpoint and demanded oral sex, to a library board, where children are served daily.

Long-serving library employees haven’t been consulted during all this, but they say they feel caught up in what is basically a political quagmire. They say the library is operating fine and they hate that there’s so much bickering among its leadership. One employee says the School Board should take a step back and get an entirely new board for the library — a clean slate.

That’s not the worst idea.

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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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