Opinion | Bloomington city council’s legislative process should require an anti-racist step; training by locals would help

What if every ordinance and resolution considered by Bloomington’s city council had to be scrutinized and debated publicly based on this question: How is this legislation anti-racist?

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Under city code, Bloomington’s city regular council meetings are scheduled for the first and third Wednesdays of the month. If three readings were required for an ordinance, the legislative process would take at least a month, from start to finish.

I think building such a step into the city council’s regular process could complement Bloomington mayor John Hamilton’s recent proposed response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is to “recover forward.”

The idea is not merely to restore Bloomington’s economic health, but to make it better than it was before. The same goes for two other areas—climate justice and racial justice.

Hamilton’s proposal includes the idea of changing the way Bloomington does things, so that we are combatting racial injustice in a way that reflects community values.

Here’s one way to build a separate step into the city council’s process, so that all legislation gets scrutinized through an anti-racist lens: Add an anti-racist reading to the legislative routine.

Currently, the normal process is that every ordinance must get read twice, at separate meetings, before it is enacted. A resolution currently just needs one reading.

The idea would be to add an occasion designed to discuss the ways the item does or does not serve the city’s anti-racist policy goals—an occasion called the “anti-racist reading.”

For ordinances, the anti-racist reading would be sandwiched between what are currently the first and second readings. For resolutions, the anti-racist reading would come after what is currently the first and only reading.

To engage in that discussion would, I think, require some training, which would equip city councilmembers with some tools that would make that kind of work easier.

Initial reaction

Last Thursday, the mayor’s office hosted a Facebook live event, billed as a forum on racial equity. Participants included Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, and at-large councilmember Jim Sims, who’s also immediate past president of the NAACP of Monroe County.

During question time, I asked Hamilton and Sims for a reaction to the idea of an extra, anti-racist legislative reading.

Hamilton would have an interest, because it would extend the time the council has to take to handle ordinances put forward by the administration. The required legislative process would run over the course of three regular city council meetings—a full month, instead of just two weeks.

It’s worth pointing out, though, that a full month of calendar time to enact an ordinance has been cited as an advantage by some councilmembers, in the context of arguments for using a standing-committee system.

In responding to the idea of adding an anti-racist reading, Hamilton deferred to the city council: “However they want to structure their their legislative business is their prerogative.”

Hamilton took the chance to include the other aspects of his”recover forward” initiative: “Anti-racism and racial justice is a key pillar to that. It is not the only pillar. We need to think about climate justice, too. And we need to think about economic justice. And in fact, all three of those things often interweave in important ways, powerful ways, complex ways.”

Sims sounded agreeable to thinking about something similar to the idea of an extra anti-racist reading, even if not exactly that. He pointed out that Bloomington is a growing city, and there’s been more legislation in the last few years than there was before. So managing the city council calendar is a challenge, he said.

Sims also said he thinks the current local code requirement under which the city council operates is adequate to get proper community input and comment.

Sims also indicated he was willing to entertain more conversation on the idea of an anti-racist reading: “Is that something I’d be willing to discuss with my colleagues? It sure is.”

I think some useful points of additional conversation could include whether the anti-racist reading of an ordinance has to to come at a meeting separate from other readings. It’s also possible to think about defining the “extra step” in the process as one that can baked into the “front end” instead of adding it as an additional reading.

For example, legislation could be vetted as anti-racist, by requiring that every resolution and ordinance be introduced with some kind of “anti-racist impact statement.” Already a part of local code is a requirement that certain ordinances include a fiscal impact statement.

Some ordinances might be hard to assess in terms of their anti-racist attributes—unless councilmembers are equipped with tools and policy frameworks that give them a way to talk about the topic.

Take, for example, a planned new bicycle lane in a neighborhood with a lot of Black residents. At first glance, that might sound like exactly the kind of anti-racist investment Bloomington should be making.

But does the bicycle lane serve to connect the residents of the neighborhood to the services they want and need? Or does the bicycle lane mainly serve people cycling through the neighborhood? Would the residents of the neighborhood be better served by installing sidewalks in places where there are currently none?

Some sort of training in anti-racist policy making seems like a good idea, if our expectation is that councilmembers start looking at their legislative acts through an anti-racist lens.

Who should provide the training?

I think that the anti-racism training should come from trainers who have deep knowledge of local history and the current local landscape.

The idea of anti-racism training for local Bloomington area officials is not novel. In fact, there seems to be some momentum building for it.

Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, and city clerk, Nicole Bolden, issued a statement last week committing to anti-racism training. That news release said the city would soon be issuing a request for qualifications (RFQ).

The city of Bloomington has now issued that RFQ for a potential “anti-racism training consultant.”

But dated the same day (July 27) as the city’s RFQ was a statement released by the Black Lives Matter B-town core council, which questions about how firm a commitment local public officials have to anti-racism training.

According to BLM B-town, in late June, three city councilmembers asked BLM B-town to develop some anti-racism training.

The BLM B-town core council responded with a proposal, which according to BLM B-town includes options for one-day or two-day training session with five anti-racist trainers, one training facilitator and a licensed therapist. The cost for training is $6,000 for the one-day session, or $12,000 for the two-day session.

BLM B-town has, according to its July 27 post, reached out to other governmental bodies, like the county council and the county board of commissioners, about providing anti-racist training.

According to BLM B-town, “None of these bodies has moved from talk to action with BLM B-town, however.”

The dollar amounts involved—at least for the BLM B-town proposal—are not the kind that are necessarily associated with a formal RFQ process. For other vendors who respond to the city’s RFQ, the dollar amount could be different. The RFQ asks respondents to consider training as many as 50 people. The proposal already made by BLM B-town contemplates a smaller group.

The city RFQ requires that a response include “a minimum of three (3) references, including contact information, from previous training programs.” The RFQ also uses the word “company” to describe potential respondents.

That’s one source of complaint by BLM B-town—that the city now appears to be interested in getting anti-racism training from those who are literally in the “business” of providing such training.

BLM B-town describes such companies that have sprung up to fill the market niche as “opportunists, eager to profit by offering ‘anti-racism workshops’ which give politicians a gold star, but yield no substantive change in terms of how officials approach policy-making.”

Another objection from BLM B-town is that the city’s RFQ for an anti-racist training consultant itself perpetuates the problem that such training is supposed to address: “This amounts to a nearly entirely white government body attempting to set the terms of how Black-activist, anti-racist trainers are to be vetted.”

The statement continues: “This results in a system where those who need to learn how to become anti-racists get to decide who is ‘Black’ enough and qualified enough to teach them how to become anti-racists.”

What are the right qualifications for consultants who could train Bloomington city councilmembers to deliberate on an ordinance during its anti-racist reading?

I think BLM B-town makes a reasonable point in asking that the training be provided by people with knowledge of the unique local circumstances of Bloomington and Monroe County. The trainers should be people who already know something about this place, without having to look up everything in books and old newspapers.

Is there some kind of potential conflict of interest for BLM B-town—which has called for a boycott of the city’s farmers market and the selling of the police department’s Bearcat armored vehicle? Yes, BLM B-town has skin in the game.

But I don’t think that disqualifies them from consideration as trainers.

I would made the a similar argument for journalists—that it is locals who should be doing the news reporting for a community. Many ads for newspaper jobs say explicitly that candidates must live in the circulation area.

If I ever get to the point of hiring another reporter for The Square Beacon, I’m not going to consider a guy I know in South Dakota, even if he could probably out-report most local reporters here, from 1,000 miles away. He wouldn’t have any stake in this community unless he moved here, so he’s not getting the job.

Of course, just because BLM B-town is local doesn’t mean the job should go to them. It should go to whichever local group steps forward with the best proposal. And it’s worth thinking about whether anti-racism training could be delivered by more than just one provider.

I think local officials can recognize the value in getting trained in anti-racist policy making, by people who also have a stake in our community—people who work, live and play here.

Bottom line

I don’t think anti-racism training serves much purpose if the idea is fix some racism someone believes might be lurking in the hearts and minds of public officials. If that’s the purpose, we’ll never know if it was needed, or if it worked, because we can’t see inside their hearts and minds.

Surely the purpose of anti-racism training should be to cause local officials to start crafting the policies they enact to be anti-racist.

We’ll know if the training has had an effect when public officials can talk not just about a new local law’s fiscal or environmental impact, but also about its anti-racist impact.

That’s what the anti-racist reading is for.

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