Cincinnati government board members may be far whiter, wealthier than city at large, survey finds

What can city leaders do differently?

CINCINNATI -- The small group of people making decisions for hundreds of thousands of Cincinnati residents may be far whiter and far wealthier than city residents themselves.

That's according to results from recent, voluntary survey of people appointed to more than 60 boards and commissions.

The same survey found women make up only about a third of board members, while they're more than half the city's population. And unelected board members are far more likely to be from Cincinnati's East Side and suburbs outside the city; people living outside Cincinnati outnumber West Side residents 5 to 1.

While it's by no means scientific, the survey gives a glimpse at what some people have seen firsthand for years in different levels of government.

Sean Rugless, president of consulting firm the Katalyst Group, has been appointed to volunteer positions by the city, Hamilton County and Ohio Governor's Office.

"In a lot of situations, I am one of the few diverse individuals on the boards," Rugless said. Before he founded Katalyst Group, he spent eight years as president and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

The point of the survey was to find out if unelected board members reflect the demographics of the city itself. The results show they don't. 

Issues of internet access -- and who can even be appointed in the first place -- may raise questions about those results.

 

Not all boards open to everyone

Cincinnati modeled its diversity survey on one done every two years in the city of Minneapolis. That city tracks seven diversity factors -- age, disability, education, gender, income, race and home ownership -- to see how closely board appointees match the population at large.

The Minneapolis survey has been around since 2009. The most recent survey found the city met four of its seven benchmarks.

An important difference might have skewed Cincinnati's survey results: Minneapolis doesn't include all of its boards and commissions in the survey. Like Cincinnati, many boards require expertise in a certain profession -- attorneys, historians and architects, for example. The people working in those fields might not have demographics similar to a city's population.

Minneapolis limits questions to its 18 boards that are open to anyone -- and leaves out the boards that require a certain professional license or expertise.

Cincinnati did not. The City Manager's Office sent the survey to 228 people serving on 60-plus boards and commissions. About half -- 100 people -- responded.

People with less income and lower education levels also are less likely to have convenient internet access, according to the Pew Research Center. Still, Minneapolis also uses a voluntary, online survey, and a far smaller percent of its board members fit into the highest-income bracket.

Mayor John Cranley, who's worked to open up city contracting opportunities to minorities, found his 421 appointments have been a near-even split between whites and non-whites. 

"Although there are a number of factors that go in to appointing board and commission members, increasing diversity is fundamental to the selection process," he said in a memo to City Manager Harry Black and City Council members.

'We have to talk to the people we're talking about'

Minneapolis has taken several steps toward improving the diversity of board members that Cincinnati could try to replicate.

Like Cincinnati, the city has a wealth gap between white and non-white residents, and its population has been diversifying rapidly. The survey was a check on whether everyone was getting an equal chance to take part in city government.

"I think the strategy of having stronger participation from different ethnic and social groups is important," Rugless said, "because we have to talk to the people we're talking about."

Board appointments can be confusing and hard to track in any city government. Vacancies can seem to open up randomly throughout the year; a wealthy Cincinnati Park Board member even sued over her term's end date.

To make volunteer opportunities more accessible, Minneapolis streamlined its application process in 2010. It's now open twice a year, in spring and fall. 

"It just makes it easier for us to do recruiting," said Cheyenne Brodeen, administration and internal services manager for Minneapolis' Neighborhood and Community Relations department. 

Brodeen said that outreach includes making sure materials are translated into other languages, and partnering with other organizations that might have members interested in applying.

That last point is critical, Rugless said. Often, the same people are tapped again and again for different city positions. While the majority of Cincinnati board members have served between one and three years, about a third have been on their boards four years or longer -- and roughly one in 10 has been on their board seven or more years.

More outreach could help the city find newer people "who are up-and-coming on the ideas we're looking to discuss," Rugless said. 

He wants Cincinnati's elected officials to keep up their outreach to neighborhood and community leaders, the city's business sector and educational institutions to recruit more diverse voices.

"That happens during political season, right? That should happen throughout the process," Rugless said.

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