Meriden City Council continues to debate racial equity initiatives

Meriden City Council continues to debate racial equity initiatives

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MERIDEN — Some of the proposed racial equity initiatives introduced by City Council Democrats following the killing of George Floyd have sparked debate among elected officials over how the city should reckon with the new spotlight being placed on the issue.

Republican Councilors Dan Brunet and Michael Carabetta and unaffiliated Mayor Kevin Scarpati argued during a recent meeting that a proposal by Democrats to add language to the City Council’s oath of office regarding racial equity was unnecessary, and Carabetta labeled the idea as “political.”

The current oath, which elected officials take at the start of each term, includes boilerplate language requiring elected officials to “support” the federal and state constitutions and the City Charter. Some councilors proposed adding the sentence, “I will advocate for racial equity and I will work to repair harms from policies that have previously created, upheld, or exacerbated racial disparities.”  

Brunet and Carabetta argued that promotion of racial equity and equality is already baked into laws and amendments included in those documents.  

“We’d have all these three powerful documents and then over here we have one little special interest just about racial equity,” Brunet said. “It’s just inherently wrong to operate that way with something as serious and powerful as the oath of office.” 

Democrat Nicole Tomassetti took issue with Brunet “boiling down” race to a special interest, and Council Majority Leader David Lowell argued that the country’s laws haven’t always ensured equity.

“We’re living under a constitution in the United States where gross inequity exists today,” Lowell said. “There are things occurring that are not against the law that are improper in our communities across the country ...”

Fellow Democrat Sonya Jelks added, “What we’re trying to identify is that there’s a segment of our community that has never felt that this body has worked for them … What’s wrong with us doing an affirmation to help them know that we are here for them?” 

Carabetta didn’t like that the proposed oath change accused the city of upholding racist policies, and argued that, if that’s true, the council should spend its time fixing those issues instead of the oath. 

“The oath is the oath. Let’s work on the policies and procedures that are making people feel that way, he said. 

Scarpati agreed the council should focus more on policies than the oath, but Democrat Yvette Cortez and others pushed back by saying the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

Scarpati said he researched language of oaths taken for other offices, including U.S. President and U.S. Senate. They don’t include specific language about racial, gender or religious equity. At one point, Scarpati called the efforts to change the oath “somewhat of a knee-jerk reaction,” which upset Democrat Larue Graham. 

“I can tell you as a father of two black kids that this is certainly not a knee-jerk reaction from my part,” said Graham, who is Black. “Maybe it hasn’t affected you your entire life ... I certainly have been racially profiled,  but I haven’t experienced police brutality in my life. But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect every decision I make when I go out on the street and how I behave when I’ve been pulled over or how I tell my boys how they got to behave.  So it’s kind of insulting to hear that this is a knee-jerk reaction. So I invite any of you guys who don't want to vote for this racial equity, just vote no, so we know exactly where you stand.”

The council’s “Racial Equity Ad Hoc Committee” eventually compromised by voting 5-0 to approve a version of language proposed by Democrat Bruce Fontanella, which reads “I will not deny to any person the consideration of social equity and equal protection of the laws regardless of color, race, creed, ethnicity, national origin, or sex.”

That proposed addition will go before the full City Council today for final approval. 

More time needed

The bid to amend the oath was one of nine items included in the sweeping racial equity resolution put forth in June by Democrats. Demonstrations swelled nationwide after Floyd was killed by a white Minneapolis officer in May.

At the time, the council referred the items to various subcommittees and charged those committees with vetting the items and sending a recommendation back to the City Council before today’s meeting.

The council is not going to meet its self-imposed deadline for some of the nine items, because subcommittees need more time to work through the items and make recommendations, Lowell said. Those delayed items include improvements to the city’s hiring practices to “ensure our residents are served by staff and employees that reflect the diversity” of the city population; cultural diversity training required for all city employees; and a proposed policy that the “city will proactively communicate and be transparent and responsive on all reported issues of discrimination findings.”

“There’s no intent to delay them,” Lowell said in a phone interview. “I think there’s just a need for more time to improve the discussions we've already had and come out with the best conclusion and recommendations.” 

Process for analyzing racial impact

Another proposal that needs more time is one to establish a formal process for analyzing and gauging the racial impact of council resolutions prior to adoption.   

Jelks, who originally proposed the idea, said she wanted to ensure the council doesn’t pass resolutions “without thinking about the impact to particular groups who might be disproportionately impacted by it.”

Lowell cited the razing of the Mills Memorial Apartments as an example of a past action that could have been analyzed for its impact on different groups. Jelks envisions a process in which any councilor would be able to request that an outside body conduct a racial impact analysis on any resolution. 

Brunet objected to the idea, arguing it would “add another layer of bureaucracy.”

Cortez disagreed, countering “everybody doesn’t know what’s wrong all the time.”

“... I absolutely think that this needs to be an option because, again, we represent our constituents, and if my constituents want me to have something looked into, I should have the ability to do that,” she said.  

Scarpati supported the idea.  

“I don’t think there’s any harm in us questioning what it is we’re doing and who it’s servicing,” he said. 

Cultural diversity council 

Some councilors have suggested allowing the proposed “Cultural Diversity and Racial Equity Council” that was included in the racial equity resolution to have input on developing and overseeing the process. 

The council’s plan currently is to take the city’s Human Rights Advisory Board, which has been dormant and short-staffed for some time, and convert it into the new cultural diversity council. 

“This is I think is an opportunity for us to revitalize the Human Rights Advisory Board, to give it a little more functionality, and to reset how we use it to align with the racial equity agenda that we’re proposing today,” Jelks said.

Brunet and other councilors agreed it was best to convert the HRAB into the cultural diversity council, rather than create a new committee from scratch. 

“I think this is a dormant committee that should serve a purpose,” Brunet said of the HRAB. “This is where we can get people that, you know, are really advocates, really impassioned on this topic, and we’ll have an opportunity to get some feedback.” 

The original racial equity resolution set a deadline of Sept. 1 for the city to form the cultural diversity council, which the Racial Equity Ad Hoc Committee voted to extend to Nov. 1 to allow more time to figure out what the committee’s scope and authority will be.  

The committee would be made up of 9 members, including two city councilors, one from the council’s majority and minority caucuses. The council is currently proposing that this committee be required to meet at least once every two months, meet at least twice annually with the city manager, and at least three times annually with the City Council and the council’s personnel, human services, and public safety subcommittees. 

mzabierek@record-journal.com203-317-2279Twitter: @MatthewZabierek

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