Things we share
Some years ago, PBS stations aired a spot with a voice intoning, “This belongs to you,” over images of the Grand Canyon and other natural wonders, followed by clips from popular programs. Even knowing it would culminate in an appeal for funds, we wanted to burst into a chorus of “This Land Is Your Land.”
Of course, the Grand Canyon doesn’t “belong” to anyone, and we certainly hope it stays that way. Contained within a national park, it is conserved and protected by the National Park Service (NPS), an agency of the federal Department of the Interior. The NPS is likewise responsible for our own Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Parks—national, state, regional and municipal—exist for everyone, including the nature within their boundaries. They are among the things we share.
Things we share enrich our lives. They contribute to our safety, security, health, knowledge and pleasure. Available to all, they include not only our parks, but our public services, libraries and schools, and natural resources such as our streams and Great Lake. They connect us to a world beyond ourselves and our families—to community, nature, ideas, information and history.
Things we share do not manage themselves, nor do we manage them by direct democracy. We look to public and quasi-public entities to provide and care for these amenities and resources.
These agencies are governed by our elected representatives or their appointees, according to state laws and local ordinances. The result is a hodgepodge of sometimes arcane selection processes. Cleveland Metroparks, for example, is overseen by a three-person board of commissioners appointed by the presiding judge of the Probate Court of Cuyahoga County. The seven-member board of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library System is chosen by the elected members of the CH-UH school board. For their funding, Ohio Metroparks and libraries depend on levies passed by the voters.
The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) has a dual mandate: (1) to treat our sewage before discharging it into Lake Erie, and (2) to protect public safety and water quality through stormwater management. Thus, it stewards the water we use for drinking, washing and recreation—an essential resource we share.
NEORSD’s seven board members are appointed by the mayor of Cleveland (3); the Suburban Council of Governments, which comprises mayors and managers or their representatives (3); and the Cuyahoga County Council (1).
Volunteering at parks, libraries and other institutions enhances our connection to the things we share, but participation is not the same as oversight.
According to Ohio law, the Metroparks, NEORSD, and public libraries all constitute “public offices” and, as such, are subject to state sunshine laws, which require holding open meetings and fulfilling public records requests. Must these meetings be held at times convenient for the public to attend? No. Are there many exceptions to public records requests? Absolutely.
We are fortunate that the CH-UH Public Library System and NEORSD solicit public input, even when not required to do so. Using focus groups and surveys, the library extensively engages the public in its strategic-planning process about every three years. NEORSD conducts a variety of community-engagement activities as part of its project-planning process. Stressing the importance of two-way communication, Frank Greenland, NEORSD’s director of watershed programs, stated, “A good organization is going to do it.”
Legal frameworks offer some assurance that the things we share will be managed and tended in service of the public interest; but laws are only effective when followed. A vibrant free press and a vigilant citizenry are essential as well.
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are writers, editors and longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.