JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – A Jan. 21 Zoom discussion among Johnson City Commissioners about a proposed Community Equity Advisory Board has sparked strong opinions — pro and con — in the community. A comment from Mayor Joe Wise that included a reference to “code language … that heterosexual white males need not apply” arguably raised the level of heat after the meeting.
Backlash from Wise’s remark has included criticism of it on social media as well as a letter to the editor criticizing Wise. From the other side, a letter from the Washington County Republican Party criticized the proposal and defended Wise and other commissioners who raised questions about whether such an initiative was needed.
The players who’ve weighed in include Kate Craig, who’s the head of the Washington County Democratic Party and a member of the LGBTQ community, and Dr. Turney Williams, who heads the Washington County GOP and made an unsuccessful city commission bid last fall.
Several people have requested to speak in the public comment period at Thursday’s commission meeting, though the advisory board topic is not on the agenda for any discussion or action.
What’s a community equity advisory board?
Former mayor Jenny Brock brought the proposal, in two-page draft form, to a work session. Langston Centre Adam Dickson had helped craft the plan, which he said was largely modeled on a similar effort in Asheville, N.C. but also looked to Knoxville and Roanoke, Va.
See Johnson City’s draft proposal below:
The proposal envisioned an 11-member board “to guide our City through self-assessment and policy advancement toward a more diverse, equitable and inclusive community.” It called for an initial “gap assessment” survey to provide information on how people from racial minorities, the LGBTQ community, disabled people and others view the city’s level of inclusivity and equity.
Numerous cities have undertaken similar formal efforts. News Channel 11 spoke to Linda Harris, an assistant city manager in Decatur, Ga., about that city of 25,000’s journey.
The city, which is about 50 percent black, developed a “community action plan” in 2015 that started with a community conversation that spanned people of different backgrounds and strove to get their honest input.
From there, the city commission appointed a “Better Together Advisory Board” centered around equity to help implement the plan. It’s now been active for about four years and “is still going strong,” Harris said.
She acknowledged there was pressure early on by some against spending the money to develop the plan.
“There were people who had no idea why we’re going to do this, because they’d always felt included,” Harris said.
And on the flip side, some people who felt their communities had traditionally been unheard and marginalized basically said, “how do we know you’re going to do anything — now you have this plan, are you going to put it on the shelf?”
“It’s difficult and it doesn’t end,” Harris said. “It’s not like we can fix it today.”
The meeting also included former school board member Lottie Ryans and East Tennessee State University history professor Daryl Carter. Both spoke favorably of the potential such a board could bring both in terms of historically marginalized groups feeling they had more of a voice in city affairs, and in Johnson City’s ability to grow economically.
“I think it’s important that all members of the community feel like their voice is heard,” Ryans said. “And I think when you can lower the temperature and have an ongoing channel for discussion it’s a lot more positive, and I think it builds relationships and understanding.
“So if I’m representing a community that’s involved in this advisory capacity, then I have to look across and say ‘what’s good for the whole city and how does my community’s need fit into this?’ and I think it helps build advocacy for how can we all benefit from this, or how can we prioritize work and why should we prioritize work.”
Ryans said her sister works in Austin, Texas, where a similar type of effort has informed the rubric the city is using as it distributes CARES Act funding.
Johnson City Director of Schools Steve Barnett described efforts at the school system, where the school board enacted a Committee for Equity last summer.
It’s charged with “finding ways to target individual instances of racism, and the systemic racism that permeates our institutions, with specific and sustainable solutions.”
Barnett pointed to five specific actions the system already has taken out of the work of the committee, which includes administrators, teachers, staff, students, former students and community members.
“Addressing diversity and confronting racism are ongoing challenges all institutions and communities face,” Barnett said,
The proposal before the city would populate the board with members “who reflect key constituences.” Those groups would include but not be limited to Black, Latino and other racial minorities; age/gender; religious and ethnic groups; LGBTQ; disabilities; and public housing.
The plan calls for eventual development of a budget for community equity initiatives and the promotion of community equity across a broad spectrum of areas from education, recreation and the arts to economic development, child care and housing.
Wise, who earlier in the 40-minute discussion questioned how equity would be defined and “managed,” said he believes city commissions he has served on have “done pretty well at giving underrepresented groups a seat at the table.”
“My questions aren’t anti-equity,” Wise said. “I don’t think anyone on this call doesn’t value equity in each of our residents or citizens or stakeholders having full opportunity to live healthy and productive lives.”
Then Wise brought up the fact that some of his reservations about the proposal related to concerns about poverty and opportunity and the fact that as a largely white city, the vast majority of Johnson Citians who struggle with such issues aren’t members of minority groups.
“When you start talking about a group with labels like equity and inclusion, there’s sort of code language there that heterosexual white males need not apply,” Wise said.
“And the truth of it is, our underrepresented populations, the ones who look to city hall and feel powerless, are more likely to look like that than these other minorities.”
Wise followed by acknowledging the city has “a problem in these other areas. Let us not set up an us versus them.”
Wise and commissioner John Hunter both questioned whether such a board was needed, with Hunter asking whether it made sense to appoint one prior to doing a gap analysis or some other survey.
And Wise pointed to a number of pre-existing efforts at inclusion and the importance of the city commission itself taking a lead by trying to place people from traditionally underrepresented groups on important boards and in important roles.
Before those doubts were raised, Carter said a board like the one being proposed was essential.
“If we’re talking about creating a city that will not be prepared just for this year or the next fiscal year but for the decades to come, then equity and inclusion has to be part of that discussion,” Carter said.
“It’s not just an issue of human rights, it’s the more practical issues such as economic growth, education, stability that matter as well.”
Carter said the board could give people a direct connection to the commission to discuss public policy matters. It “would help to give our citizens a feeling of not only connection, but that they have a voice and an ability to buy in to the actions of the city, the city commission, etc…
“I have great hope for this proposal. I hope that the city commission will approve it and move forward.”
At one point John Hunter asked whether creating the board before the survey or gap analysis was done made sense. He also questioned whether a large board might prove ineffective, though he did say he believed the city needed to make continued improvement.
“I worry about putting additional layers into government that make it even more confusing for everybody, where if we can figure out ways to simplify it makes things easier for people and more equitable,” Hunter said.
He, new commissioner Aaron Murphy and Wise all shared their perceptions of Johnson City as a very welcoming place.
Brock, though, said while that may be so, a general section about “openness and acceptance” in Johnson City’s community survey scored a 53 percent satisfaction rating, while most satisfaction areas in the survey were in the 60 to 80 percent range.
Wise said he’d be interested in whether perceptions about that type of question were less favorable among the African-American community or other underrepresented groups.
Brock responded to Hunter’s statement that he thought Johnson City was a very accepting city already.
“That’s our viewpoint,” Brock said. “We don’t know for sure if that’s the case. I’ve heard a lot of things that would probably challenge that within certain groups.
“But I think the best thing we can do if we want to be an evidence-based community, it is to do an assessment where we directly drill down on these kind of questions if we can do that and then be able to address them to make some progress in these areas.”
Hunter asked whether that meant Brock wanted an assessment to determine if a board was needed or perhaps other solutions, or whether she definitely wanted a board.
She said the assessment is part of what’s proposed but that the board itself would be involved with the assessment, do the planning and come back to the commission with its findings and proposals.
“Some of that proposing may involve policy changes, it may involve the process that we use when we’re doing budget planning and capital planning, so it’s a little more comprehensive than that.”
The divergent aftermath
Regardless of their overall context, Wise’s comments brought fairly swift response. Craig had a guest editorial in the Johnson City Press Jan. 31 in which she said Wise was protecting the status quo.
Craig wrote that aside from Brock, “not one of the Johnson City commissioners expressed full-throated support for the Equity Advisory Board.”
She wrote that she supports the proposed board and that she had experienced discrimination after moving back to Johnson City in 2016, which she knew was “a less inclusive community” than her most recent home.
She spoke highly of Johnson City’s downtown and the city’s beauty, but said “Young people are leaving for areas that are more inclusive,” adding that “job opportunities are abundant” in more inclusive areas.
The response of Craig and others produced its own reaction in the form of the county GOP executive committee’s letter.
The letter expressed “serious reservations” about the proposed board. It said the board’s composition was “not defined” but that it “would be definition represent a very narrow segment of our community to the exclusion of the majority.”
The letter continued by praising what it called a “truly diverse” city commission and school board and saying the city has “historically been a very progressive community, inclusive of all races and gender identities.”
It expressed agreement with what it called “the reservations expressed by our City Commissioners that this ‘board’ is poorly presented and likely ill advised.”
Finally, the letter predicted such a board “would likely lead to divisiveness that does not currently exist” and called on recipients to “please contact your city representatives if you have equal concerns.”
Turney Williams addressed the letter and his perceptions Tuesday in an interview with News Channel 11.
Williams decried what he said were social media postings about some commissioners “that were unflattering and even accused them of being racist, and I said the people that we’re talking about are certainly not racist.
“Then the question of whether we could support those good people came up and I said I’d be happy to.”
Asked whether he thought a board like the one envisioned could accomplish some good and do its work without being divisive, Williams said he didn’t think so in what he called the current political climate.
“The part that raised my ire the most was that we’ve reached a point in society if you even voice an opinion that is not acceptable to a small minority of people who disagree with that opinion, suddenly you’re labeled a bad person,” Williams said.
He said when he saw two commissioners being accused of racism for unwillingness to support the committee despite what he said were reservations on the part of four commissioners, “immediately it became divisive, when we start talking about labeling good people as racists.”
He mentioned Craig’s guest column, calling it “an attack on the new mayor” that he thought was inappropriate.
“If that’s the way we start forming an equity committee, what is this committee going to do when they actually have a routine regular forum,” Williams said, apparently in reference to the column and social media posts, which are not officially related to formation of the committee.
ETSU’s Carter disagreed with that assessment.
“The idea that we can’t discuss a matter of public importance because it’s too sensitive doesn’t make any sense to me,” Carter said.
“Too often in the history of the United States, people who have not wanted to address matters of progress, inclusion, equity, civil rights, have always wanted to hold off…
“And if we had as a nation agreed to do that we wouldn’t have the progress that we have had over the period of the last 60, 70 years in this country.
“We have to be bold enough to say, ‘look, we live in a pretty good city –but our city can be better. Our city needs to be better. And there are things we can do to make sure every one of our citizens, white, black or otherwise, feels included, feels valued and has a real opportunity to reach their fullest potential.”