Council, staff: A trade off, but it might be time

The Keizer City Council and city staff began their most full-throated conversation to date on issues of equity and inclusion during a work session Monday, Sept. 28. 

While the council does not take action or vote on issues during work sessions, the group discussed what the city has done to broaden its outreach to people of color and began defining the work ahead. 

While talk about an inclusion resolution was on the agenda, other issues consumed time and that particular element was pushed to a follow-up meeting slated for Oct. 28.

Councilors began the meeting with attempts to define their own stance on the issues and what solutions they hope to arrive at as the discussion continues. 

“If we make the statement and we don’t make the step into policy and organization, how do we create a space where anyone feels they can participate in the communication?” asked Councilor Elizabeth Smith. “I’m interested in going forward, but what is there after a feel-good statement?”

Councilor Roland Herrera said making a statement was the first step toward action and accountability. 

“We have to have the mindset to commit ourselves to being open. We have to make it so that people of color feel welcomed here,” Herrera said. 

Mayor Cathy Clark used a video clip from a presentation to the National League of Cities to kick off the night and found in it a metaphor. Rather than thinking of inclusion as something that immediately excludes another person, the video pointed to systemic changes that make life better for all. Requiring curb cuts to assist disabled residents in moving around their neighborhoods was the example used. The curb cuts empowered a specific group, but benefited everyone who has used a sidewalk while carrying a bag or pushing a stroller. 

“Let’s cut some curbs for people,” Clark said. 

From that point, the city’s department heads were given the opportunity to talk about the ways they’ve worked toward greater inclusivity. 

City Manager Chris Eppley said the leadership team began talking about adopting a set of core values even before the current nationwide unrest, but they’ve tried to move slowly because the values would need to be something adopted in a meaningful way by all existing employees. 

Keizer currently has 101 employees, 82 identify as white, 13 identify as non-white and six chose not to respond to the demographic question. 

Machell DePina, human resources director for the city, said adopting a set of core values could then become a part of the recruiting and employee review cycles. 

“When (core values) are in the job description, employees are held accountable for doing their jobs in that way. That’s where (the rubber) hits the road and ensures you are walking the talk,” DePina said. 

In some ways, Keizer is already a step ahead of some organizations in that bilingual employees receive a 5% bonus for using other language skills as part of their duties. 

Keizer Police Department Chief John Teague reiterated his past assertion that his department is one that focuses on matters of justice for all. New recruits are judged on their “courage, conscientiousness, a sense of justice, empathy, helpfulness and humility,” he said. 

He added that finding ways for the government to address poverty in any hue is likely a more beneficial starting point. 

“Government is stacked against poverty and it makes it hard as hell to dig out of it,” Teague said. 

That comment echoed a statement earlier in the evening by Councilor Laura Reid, who said, “I think that changing the beginning is the thing we can change. People will take advantage in a variety of ways, but we have to have a complete understanding of where people are beginning.”

While no new actions were taken, Eppley suggested that maybe the time had come to reshuffle some city priorities. 

“For a couple of years, we’ve bounced around the idea of a diversity, equity and inclusion position at the city, one that would do some of the work of outreach. Unfortunately, because of how constrained we are with the budget, we’ve had to grapple with the question of giving up something else to afford it. We may be at the point now where we answer that question: what do we stop doing because this is that important?” Eppley said.