New IndyPL Board member Eugene White turns back on community, but we aren’t backing down

Photo: The IndyPL Board of Trustees Meeting. Credit: Indianapolis Liberation Center.

Well before the 6:30 pm start time, the Southport Library community space–the site of March’s regular Indianapolis Public Library (IndyPL) Board of Trustees meeting–was already overflowing with community members. For the last several months, these meetings have been flashpoints in a struggle over democracy and transparency in the city. This meeting, however, had a slightly different feel. It was the first public appearance of the board’s newest member, Dr. Eugene White.

The Indianapolis City-County Council unanimously appointed White, a former Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent and Martin University President, to the board in early March. Immediately after his appointment weeks ago, White echoed the community’s concerns to the IndyStar, telling the paper, “I know there’s some serious issues on the board,” especially with last year’s rigged CEO search. After the national search, the board undemocratically and against the will of the people offered the job to Gabriel Morley of New Orleans who, in the last part of the CEO search, delivered an embarrassing public presentation with zero vision, instead of Nichelle M. Hayes, a 3rd generation Indianapolis resident, long-time library worker and administrator, and then-interim CEO.

As reporter Ko Lyn Cheang wrote, White stated that “His first priorities will involve asking questions about what happened during the CEO search, why Hayes was not offered the CEO position, and why, after Morley declined, she still was rebuffed. White said that from what he knows, he believed their explanation to be ‘weak.’”

Although the meeting started with an optimistic tone, it quickly reverted back to the now-standard wall of silence between the people and several board members as White completely reversed his position, made absolutely no mention of his previous comments, and voted against a resolution to appoint Hayes as CEO. This was not entirely unexpected, as Hope Tribble worked to recruit White to her small clique of anti-people board members, nor is it a significant defeat, as we still emerged from the meeting in a stronger position than we were when we started the struggle late last year. In fact, we now have even more ammunition on our side.

“I’m not asking you to trust me” – Dr. Eugene White

At Monday’s meeting, White said he had “changed his mind” about hiring Hayes “after learning all the facts.” He declined to share the facts that changed his mind. When asked how the community could trust him when he won’t share his reasoning, White responded “I’m not asking you to trust me.”

While Dr. White refused to respond to the community’s demands for transparency, he did speak to the IndyStar. Instead of revealing the supposed “facts” that led him to change his mind, White suggested Nichelle Hayes was unqualified for the position of IndyPL CEO. He spoke to current acting CEO Gregory Hill’s resume, which is publicly available with a LinkedIn account – not new information.

Dr. White is simply restating the board’s previous lies, like Hayes’ alleged lack of experience, despite her serving as CEO for months . In an email Dr. White offered to read at the board meeting–before being stopped by legal counsel, who advised he needed to look it over first–he criticized Hayes’ tenure as interim CEO, including her “interpersonal relations with others.”

That the majority of library workers who have spoken at IndyPL board meetings over the past months have been in favor of Hayes’ appointment indicates the divide between library “leadership” and staff. Hayes oversaw the largest pay raise for IndyPL staff in recent history, and has been praised for her leadership in implementing recommendations from the climate improvement plan.

Her leadership was praised many times during the March 27 board meeting.

“Being a leader is not just about what qualifications you have on a piece of paper, but about how much people trust you and rally behind you,” said Derek Ford, Associate Professor of Education Studies at DePauw University and IndyPL patron. “Nichelle has proven she can do this.”

Some in the community, like Michael Torres, president of AFSCME Local 3395, believe the reason for the board’s refusal to hire Hayes is personal.

“Ms. Hayes, over the years, rightfully filed a few grievances over her salary, her job description, and her performance evaluation,” Torres said, reading from a letter originally submitted to the City-County Council last December. “My theory has been further substantiated by recently learning board members are saying she was the person who called a candidate’s employer.”

White’s betrayal doesn’t alter the dynamics of the fight

We know that no elected politician can save us, so of course neither can an appointed one. We-the people of Indianapolis-took it upon ourselves to hold the Board accountable. We decided to mobilize and to show up at these meetings. We decided to do our research, to organize, to bring our friends and to share petitions with our co-workers and family members.

That such a broad cross-section of the community has regularly sacrificed to participate in this fight-to make the public library truly public-is inspiring.

There are two sides to this struggle. One side is composed of Tribble, Ray Biederman, and now White.

The other side is composed of the rest of us. There is no “silent majority.” Of the hours of public comment delivered since November, only one or two have opposed Hayes while another took issue with “civility.” When we consider the thousands of petition signatures, the hundreds of e-mails, and the dozens of actions and interventions it becomes clearer: The other side has no support, and we are now in the fifth month of this struggle.

This, perhaps, explains why Tribble insists on maintaining an extravagant display of armed cops.

Indy denounces Tribble’s deployment of armed cops to stifle and intimidate the public

The public comment period extended until past 8:00 pm on Monday, with dozens of community members, city leaders, and library patrons and workers taking to the microphone to offer their thoughts. Among them was Rev. Patrick Burke, the Minister for Justice & Community Collaboration at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

“It’s very clear,” he stated, “that trust in this community is being breached and broken. I’ve been watching the board meetings for months from afar, but have not been coming because I thought it would resolve itself. But that is clearly not the case,” he said.

Moreover, Burke addressed another undercurrent present at recent meetings facilitated by Board President Tribble, speaking out against the ongoing and overwhelming presence of police at the monthly board meetings. 

“Bringing in the IMPD is very concerning from our perspective,” Burke remarked, citing statistics and Indianapolis’ recent and devastating history of police violence. “There are children in the lobby standing next to police officers. I was there in 2020,” referring to the uprisings against the War on Black America, and “we don’t want to see it anymore… I implore you, please don’t bring the IMPD into the mix any longer.”

Dec. 12, 2022 protest

At every board meeting since December, just after the community held our first protest in support of Hayes, Tribble and her crew have mobilized the murderous IMPD to try and repress free speech and create an atmosphere of fear and apprehension. At last month’s meeting, community leaders and the pro-people Board members denounced the police’s unnecessary and intimidating presence.

Sam James, co-coordinator of ANSWER Indiana, stated during the February 27 public comment period that the decision to deploy cops with weapons at a community meeting that is regularly peaceful (if rowdy), was ridiculous because “no one has been violent.” Their comment exposed yet another way in which Tribble runs the board like a dictatorship. 

Board member Stephen Lane noted that the decision to use armed cops wasn’t made by the entire board, but by Tribble herself, who was apparently acting in the interests of Lane, lying that Board “members have been aggressively approached.” Of course, Tribble couldn’t cite the amount of money she wasted in this pathetic attempt to prevent the public from engaging in democratic deliberation.

These are the same cops who shot Anthony Maclin while he was sleeping in a car parked in his grandparent’s driveway a few months ago, who electrocuted and suffocated Herman Whitfield III to death in front of his parents last April, and who have committed so many acts of terror and violence against working class and oppressed peoples of this city. As we fight in the library struggle, as we maintain and grow Hope Packages, as we conduct our educational programming, intervene in spontaneous uprisings and struggles, the groups working in the Indianapolis LIberation Center are, as a matter of routine, spending time building a movement to liberate our city from these killer cops.

Backroom politicking leaves community out of decision making

The reason Tribble wants the police there is undoubtedly to protect her from having to face the public with the truth. No one is buying her many and contradictory narratives and she and her crew of Raymond Biederman and, now, White, have lost all legitimacy.

Brown of District 13

Jesse Brown, a local activist who is currently running to represent City-County Council District 13, spoke to the Board members about his interactions with his fellow neighbors. “I have yet to meet someone knocking on the thousands of doors in my district… who opposes Hayes,” he said. “Even if they don’t know the specifics, they say ‘Oh, that library thing? That’s an embarrassment for our city.’ Our City-County Council shouldn’t sit by and let their appointees flagrantly disregard the will of the people. It feels like a slap in the face to the people of District 13,” he concluded.

Members of the public who attended the November 30 presentations from IndyPL CEO candidates Morley and Hayes saw for themselves the quality of Hayes’ work compared to Morley’s. They also heard Hope Tribble tell several attendees that she was supporting Hayes as the CEO pick.

However, just a week later at the special board meeting held December 8, Tribble cast the fourth vote to offer the position to Morley. She offered no explanation for her change in opinion at the time, and the board refused to provide justification for their decision. Board members closed the meeting amidst betrayed anger from the public after meeting for only 10 minutes.

At the next regular board meeting on December 19, Tribble read a “follow-up” statement on behalf of the Diversity, Policy and Human Resources Committee. The statement was largely devoid of content, instead serving as a bland, HR-approved letter of support for the board’s decision to offer Morley the CEO position. Dr. Khaula Murtahda pushed back, asking why, as a member of that committee, she had not seen the statement before it was read. Tribble’s excuse was that the committee hadn’t met due to two people being out of town. The third member of the committee, Curtis Bigsbee, now resigned from the board, refused to say whether he had seen the statement before the meeting.

The first time the public was given a justification for the board’s decision was after 16 members of the City County Council signed an open letter urging them to hire Hayes. Four members of the board – former president Jose Salinas, Raymond Biederman, Tribble, and Bigsbee – responded with their own open letter. The 1700-word document suggested that Hayes did not meet the qualifications for CEO, and that her being a finalist “should not be construed as an indication that a majority of the Trustees believe Ms. Hayes…to be a viable option to be selected as the permanent CEO.”

Upon TD Robinson’s resignation, it fell to the City County Council to make a new appointment. On February 8, the Council voted to appoint Dr. Eugene White to the position. However, after the meeting several councilors told members of the public that they had been unaware there were multiple applications for the position. These councilors claimed to have no idea that local politician Karla Lopez Owens had applied with the support of the Library Workers’ Union.

Dr. White’s about-face marks the second time that a board member has stated support for Hayes publicly and then flipped their stance abruptly and without notice. Community members who have been watching closely have to wonder if something else is going on. Why was Owens’ application for the board appointment not shared with the full council? Why did Tribble backtrack her initial support? Why have the anti-Hayes board members repeatedly gone behind the backs of Drs. Murtadha and Payne to present a false impression of board consensus?

Incompetency of Board leaders on full display

Whatever the story behind the scenes, the tiny clique currently in control of the IndyPL Board of Trustees continues to disappoint in public. During the latest meeting, Tribble presented an incomplete resolution to shift the date of the April board meeting–without providing a new date. The board awkwardly danced around the resolution for five minutes before legal counsel stepped in to say that action must be taken: either table the resolution and keep the April board meeting scheduled for April 24 or introduce an amendment to include a new date. Dr. Murtadha motioned to table the resolution, which was finally set aside after nearly 10 minutes of needless back-and-forth. Community members in attendance were audibly annoyed. One threw her hands in the air while others murmured that this could have been discussed via email.

Lane then introduced a motion to amend the agenda in order to submit a resolution in favor of appointing Nichelle Hayes as IndyPL CEO. Tribble was uncertain of how to proceed; legal counsel advised that previous motions to amend the agenda required 4 votes. Lane confirmed his intent, to which Tribble responded, “Ok, so that requires 5 votes” before legal counsel corrected her again. Tribble indicated for Lane to continue; legal counsel once again had to step in to remind her that motions require a second.

Indianapolis workers and communities face removal of mobile health clinics

The board neglected to address one of the most recent controversies the library’s inept leadership started last week, when several prominent LGBTQ organizations in the city were told by library leadership, under the guidance of interim CEO Greg Hill, that they are no longer permitted to run mobile clinics that conduct lifesaving HIV testing on library property. The Board did not address canceling community partnerships that allow nonprofits to provide free and sorely-needed mobile clinics to library grounds, which provide critical care for the library’s most vulnerable patrons. This decision contradicts the library’s official health and wellness policy, which includes a directive to “connect with community health partners… to identify the best ways to partner and promote healthy living and resources.”

Although some of these restrictions were loosened a bit after community outcry, multiple members of the public urged the library to continue this program. Tribble, as usual, couldn’t be concerned with the needs of the public during the four-hour long meeting.

Two steps forward, one step back!

We might find ourselves tempted to revert to dismay and cynicism after White sold out his entire community in a matter of weeks. Yet that is what politicians do, and White is no different.

Throughout this entire struggle, we have proven that the real power in this city is in the hands of the organized people of Indianapolis. If we continue to unite, mobilize, and stand resolute in the face of the last hangers-on of the Jackie Nytes regime, we will win! We have already come so far. In the past few months, not only have we kept the IndyPL BoT under close scrutiny and woven the fabric of our community together more expansively, but we have prevented Morley from taking the CEO position and, most importantly, have managed to have pro-people trustees–like Lane–appointed to the Board!

Flannelly addresses the Board

If we take a wider view, the gains are truly remarkable. Bree Flannelly first put the spotlight on the Board leadership’s racism and anti-worker policies on May 24, 2021. Flannelly exposed how former CEO Jackie Nytes and Judge Salinas built a climate of fear as Nytes took credit for the hard and bold work of library workers to create new collections to serve oppressed identities.

That summer, AFSCME Local 3395–the Library Workers’ Union–and the Indianapolis Liberation Center launched a struggle to oust Nytes from her position. After months of insisting she wouldn’t even entertain the thought of stepping down, she announced her resignation on August 20 of that year.

The key to the victory then–and now–is our perseverance, willingness to remain tactically supple and open to all, and our commitment to maintaining the broadest unity possible as we concentrate on our one goal: Nichelle M. Hayes for IndyPL CEO NOW!

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