City Council splits over whether to hire racial equity consultant

Next week, the Auburn City Council formally votes yes or no on entering into an agreement with a consulting group that would provide city leaders and staff 40 hours of racial equity training and help it develop policies.

At a work session Monday, however, with only Councilmember Larry Brown absent, the panel split 3 to 3 in its discussion about hiring or not hiring the Racing to Equity consulting group.

If the past is prologue to the future, Brown would make the deciding vote.

“I believe in diversity, and also believe we should embrace diversity in our community and in the city of Auburn,” said Councilman Bob Baggett, recounting some inadvertently disrespectful and insensitive comments he’d recently made in a private conversation and for which he apologized.

Councilmember Largo Wales objected to what she considered the prospective contract’s too narrow a focus on racial iniquities when such an effort could also examine and address bias against other groups that deal with discrimination every day.

“We’re just tapping into one piece of the composite of all of us, when we have an opportunity to tap into male-female, Hindu-Sikh, amputees, low-functioning cognitive,” Wales said. “I went through the (contract) documents and underlined every time it talked about racism. We have to bring a lot of people a long ways, and I really object to the huge focus … on racism.”

Wales likewise questioned where the city will get the money to cover the costs of the program at time when its tight budget situation and its inability to adequately meet the maintenance needs of its own street system are well known.

Councilman Claude DaCorsi, while supportive of racial equity training, echoed another of Wales’ concerns: why the three council members who won’t be there after the new year – Wales, Bill Peloza and John Holman – should be sitting for all that training. Why not, DaCorsi asked, delay training for a year to benefit the three freshman council members who will be there in 2020?

Yolanda Trout, a strong supporter of the training, countered that “we old school people need a lot of training also… but I think that this program will cover a lot of what we need in this city … I believe in this program to come into Auburn.”

Like other cities have done or are doing, Auburn is poised to take a hard, formal look at its policies to determine if some of them, inadvertently, and with unintended consequences, are creating inequities out there.

To reduce blind spots and to increase equity where it need to be addressed, explained Dana Hinman, Auburn’s chief administrative officer.

At its final meeting in June, the city council delayed its vote that could have given Mayor Nancy Backus the go-ahead to finalize the agreement.

The not-to-exceed costs for the three-year agreement are $99,000 for 2019, $180,000 for 2020, and $131,000 for 2021.

Here’s what the city would get for its dollars:

• Development of racial equity policies and equity tools;

• Racial Equity Adaptive Leadership (REAL) training for city management teams and employees;

• Strategic, racial equity, executive advising for the mayor, department directors and leadership teams;

• Research, analysis and metric development for Auburn’s program;

• Development of a “Racial Equity Team,” to include training and strategic advising during the first two years of the team’s creation;

• Facilitating Auburn’s “Racial Affinity Caucusing” groups;

• Strategic advising for city leaders on community engagement measures; and;

• “Train-the-trainer” program development to support internal sustainability of the equity and implicit bias program.

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