HomeLocal governmentCity and County Commissions vote to partner on Gun Violence Task Force; Duncan-Walker suggests a new “Office of Neighborhood Safety”
City and County Commissions vote to partner on Gun Violence Task Force; Duncan-Walker suggests a new “Office of Neighborhood Safety”
September 4, 2023
BY JENNIFER CABRERA
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – At their August 28 joint meeting, the Alachua County Commission and Gainesville City Commission voted to partner on a community-based Gun Violence Task Force, and City Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker proposed a new “Office of Neighborhood Safety.”
Proposals from the Gun Violence Summit
Yvette Carter, who works in the Gainesville City Manager’s Office, gave a presentation about the Gun Violence Summit that was held in early August and said three proposals were officially supported: a Gainesville/Alachua County Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, which would be a collaboration of City and County departments, law enforcement, the public health community, educational institutions, and community-based providers; an alternative proposal for a group with membership not appointed by the City or County Commission but selected by staff from stakeholder organizations to provide recommendations; the third was a Gainesville/Alachua County Gun Violence Prevention Alliance, a consortium of local partners working to develop strategies aimed at stemming the proliferation of gun violence, with Santa Fe College as a suggested lead organization.
City Commissioners leave for Hurricane Idalia press conference
After Carter spoke, Gainesville Mayor Harvey Ward left to hold a press conference on Hurricane Idalia preparations, and City Commissioners Cynthia Chestnut, Ed Book, and Casey Willits also said they would be leaving to attend the press conference. Alachua County Commission Chair Anna Prizzia pointed out that the City Commission would no longer have a quorum, so the meeting would need to adjourn–with a large number of people in the audience for the gun violence prevention discussion.
Prizzia asked, “Not to question you, but is there a reason why all the commissioners need to leave the meeting for the press conference? Is there a possibility that one of you could stay so that we have a quorum?” Commissioner Ed Book offered to stay so Chestnut could go, and Willits also offered to stay; Commissioner Reina Saco was attending remotely and did not count toward the physical quorum for the meeting. Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut left.
Wheeler: “No stronger coalition than Bibles and badges”
County Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler said that as a former middle-school teacher, “a middle-schooler… will communicate with you if you build a relationship, and I see the police force here being represented, I see our ministers represented here. I’m telling you guys, there’s no stronger coalition than Bibles and badges… If you all will step up and take the leadership here, this is where you’re most needed.”
Children’s Trust programs
Marsha Kiner, Executive Director of the Children’s Trust of Alachua County, said the organization has added more funding for programs that can address gun violence, including $5.4 million to continue summer camps, after-school programs, tutoring, and Teens Work Alachua; and $1 million to create and support Youth Advisory Councils, additional access to sports, and a Youth Safety Task Force; and a $500,000 mentoring Request for Proposals. She said the Children’s Trust has also provided $50,000 to community organizations that host gun violence and youth events and $400,000 for mini-grants to provide training to various organizations that work with youth. Kiner said 220 youth participated in Teen Works over the summer, and Children’s Trust is working on doing something this fall for another 200 youth.
Prizzia said literacy is “at the core” of the issue and that fewer students can read now than three years ago: “And so I hope that as we work on this literacy plan that we’ve talked about in various meetings, we’ll find a unified voice so that we can serve our children.”
“We mean business with this”
City Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker reminded everyone that she had made a four-part motion in February. The first part was to declare gun violence as a public health crisis, and the City Commission did that. The second part was to ask the County Commission to declare gun violence as a public health crisis, and they’ve done that. The third part was to “advance and lay a foundation for convening a Gun Violence Task Force, and that is what I’m here to talk to you about today.”
Duncan-Walker said she wanted to hear from others about their take on what a task force would look like. Willits added, “The goal is to have some form of a task force… We mean business with this; we want a task force at the end of this.”
County Commissioner Mary Alford agreed that “we need to walk away with a task force today.” She added that it is “critical” to “include the impacted individuals in some way, including the youth”; that literacy is important; and that they should help parents “gain at least the amount of literacy to be able to read the back of the Tylenol bottle and their children’s report cards… because kids aren’t going to read if their parents don’t read as quickly.”
“If this is a priority… then let’s fund it”
County Commissioner Ken Cornell said he supported a task force, but the examples provided by Carter were mostly from “cities led by strong mayors… I continue to hear from the City, ‘We can’t do it this year.’ I don’t like hearing that. Like, if this is a priority that’s convening all the staff time, all these commissioners, then let’s fund it. Let’s make it a priority.” He said the County Commission meeting on September 5 was scheduled after the Gun Violence Summit to discuss what they could still do in the County’s FY2024 budget to address gun violence: “If this is really a priority of this community… then we’ve got to stop saying that we’re not funding it.”
Prizzia said she thought the effort should be “continuous. Task forces, to me, are things that have a beginning and an end, and I’m not sure that this issue has an end; I think that if we don’t stay on it, it just comes back to haunt us. I think it needs to be an ongoing continuous group, not necessarily a task force with a timeline that develops an action plan and then walks away and hands off the action plan and says, ‘Thanks so much.'”
“The reality is that what we’re talking about is poverty, education gaps, and lack of opportunity”
Prizzia also wanted the group to “start talking about root causes… The reality is that what we’re talking about is poverty, education gaps, and lack of opportunity. Yes, those families and those individuals have maybe made poor decisions, but the reality is that we have an entire system that’s been built on not providing equally and equitably those opportunities for education, for economic opportunity… Because until we address those issues, we’re just going to keep repeating the same things over and over, trying to build a solution. And the reality is, the solution is giving people the opportunity for their families to thrive and to be able to provide for themselves–their food, their basic needs, and their education and economic opportunity.” She said the effort should be “community-led… because change isn’t going to come in our systems until we change the way that we make decisions, and that’s not going to happen until we have community-driven and community-engaged decision-making processes.”
“If you put the children in leadership positions, they will lead”
Duncan-Walker said, “I always lead with the youth, always lead with the youth… We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear… It is not a game; it is all hands on deck… The children must lead… If you put the children in leadership positions, they will lead. That’s who has to be leading us here.” She said the task force is temporary, but she hopes it will lead to “infrastructure to sustain a much more lengthy effort to address gun violence… over a 10-year period.” She suggested an “Office of Neighborhood Safety,” which is something Miami-Dade County is doing with a focus on prevention, intervention, re-entry, economic investment, and community revitalization.
She continued, “I’d like to see us consider building out an actual office that would employ the experts, that would employ the community members, what would be a house for the Interruptors, the Credible Messengers, etc., etc., to continue to do this work over time… And, of course, how we fund it becomes the issue.” She said the Children’s Trust may be able to provide some of that funding.
Duncan-Walker said the questions about the task force are, “How long do they do it? Who’s around the table? Who houses it?”
First City motion
Duncan-Walker made a motion for the City Commission to convene a Citizen Safety Task Force with the idea of including an Office for Neighborhood Safety. Willits seconded the motion.
Prizzia said, “We do have non-citizen neighbors, so would it be possible to expand it to Neighborhood Safety or Safety? I just want to think about the people who are here who may be…”
Duncan-Walker interjected, “Yeah, I don’t have a problem with that. Absolutely. So that was modeling kind of after Orlando’s Citizen Safety Task Force, but I’m perfectly fine with it.”
Second City motion
Someone pointed out that Duncan-Walker couldn’t make motions because as Mayor Pro Tem, she was chairing the meeting in Ward’s absence, so Willits made a motion that the City convene a task force “in the vein of neighborhood safety… so this is community partners and stakeholders, with the intent to study an Office of Neighborhood Safety.”
City Commissioner Bryan Eastman asked Willits to clarify that the task force is still intended to be the Gun Violence Task Force, so Willits revised the motion: “It is to convene a task force around gun violence prevention with the stakeholders and the community involvement that we need from all of these organizations, and one of the potential goals for them to discuss is something like an Office of Neighborhood Safety.”
Eastman then asked for clarification on whether the intent was for the City to convene the task force, and Willits said, “‘Convene’ is still pretty open at this point.” Eastman seconded the motion.
County Communications Director Mark Sexton announced at that point that the press conference was over and the other members of the City Commission were on their way back.
First County motion
Alford made a motion that the County “work with the City to help them accomplish that,” and Cornell seconded the motion.
During public comment, Naima Brown, Vice President for Student Affairs at Santa Fe College, said she was there to express “Santa Fe College’s commitment to working with the City and the County and the community as a convener with the gun violence issue.”
Cornell said, “God bless you,” and Prizzia and Alford joked that they wanted to clap and “break our own rules here.”
Chanae Jackson said, “The biggest thing for the youth… is the anxiety, the depression, and the trauma… A lot of our kids, it’s not that they’re not excelling because they don’t want to; they’re dealing with the fear that they might actually be gunned down–or a friend gunned down in front of them–because many of them are having nightmares. Many of them don’t have mental health services because we don’t have enough black providers.” She said a “rubric” needed to be developed “by the people that are most directly impacted” before a task force is formed.
Jackson’s son read an Open Letter regarding the “Common Purpose Initiative,” which asked that the community be included in developing the scope and criteria for membership in the task force and that the focus be on “youth development,” not “violence prevention.” The letter asks for funding for several initiatives, adding that the City and County should “prioritize Black led organizations.” The letter concludes, “Your inaction in including the community in a meaningful way as solutions are developed is no longer acceptable. We will no longer sit in silence. We are watching and holding you all capable of sharing power, being creative and open-minded, and prioritizing resources for these initiatives.” The letter has over 200 signatures.
Jo Beaty said she was concerned that the second part of the motion directed the task force to consider the new Office of Neighborhood Safety; she said, “You shouldn’t have some predetermined end to it.”
Third City motion
Following public comment, Book said he didn’t favor the term “task force,” but he did favor having “a structure where we can get all the partners on board… [and] when the partners report, we’ll know what our gaps are… When we identify the gaps, we’ll know the next piece.”
Eastman said he was “nervous about the term ‘convene’ in this” and suggested changing the motion to “set up a gun violence task force” instead of “convene.” He added, “And with a goal to review an Office of Neighborhood Safety as a solution as just one of many goals… I didn’t want to give any direction to staff that we are asking them to convene this and that we are going forward with this… as the intent of what we’re doing here.”
Willits agreed to make those changes to his motion because “we are saying we are going to start bringing people together, whether the long-term convener and home of this is Santa Fe College” and “I think it’s clear that an Office of Neighborhood Safety is just one thing that they may come back with.”
Prizzia said it wasn’t clear whether the motion had changed, so Eastman said, “The motion I made is ‘Move the City continue to set up a Gun Violence Task Force with community partners, with a goal to review an Office of Neighborhood Safety as a solution.'”
Willits said, “Continue is just so weak,” and Eastman said, “We are actively working with Santa Fe College–I can get rid of the word ‘continue.’ But we are already doing this thing.”
“This idea of convening seems to be kind of hindering us”
Duncan-Walker asked whether Dr. Brown from Santa Fe College was still there, but she had left. Duncan-Walker said, “I really think it’s important that we be able to hear from them what their idea is… They made a very generous offer… The City has been having conversations about not wanting to lead this, not wanting to convene this. And you all know that I had a problem with that. But if Santa Fe wants to do it, I want to hear more from them about what that means to them… I also don’t want to keep kicking this can down the road… And this idea of convening seems to be kind of hindering us, and that’s troubling to me in my spirit because I want us to move something today that is meaningful.”
City Manager Cynthia Curry said she had spoken with Santa Fe President Paul Broadie about “his interest in serving as a clearing house… He did not want to manage a task force process. He was very clear about that… But I just want to reinforce that Santa Fe, as [Dr. Brown] said today, they’re interested in that limited role.” Curry emphasized that Santa Fe College is interested in providing administrative support, including applying for grants, but “they are not interested in managing the process.”
“It sounds like we’re kind of back to square one”
Duncan-Walker said, “We have to make a decision up here. And once again, it sounds like we’re kind of back to square one and back to my original point of heartbreak and dismay with the City saying we don’t want to lead this.”
County Commissioner Chuck Chestnut said, “Why can’t the City and County lead this? Why not just be one?”
Duncan-Walker responded, “Right now, it appears that nobody’s stepping up to actually lead, and that’s a problem because we know that this has to move forward… Santa Fe is offering us some wonderful, big things that I think we should take advantage of, but we still need a leader if the City of Gainesville is not going to lead this. So I have to ask my County colleagues, just because we’re sitting up here.”
Gun violence is a county-wide issue
Prizzia said gun violence and poverty are not just an issue in Gainesville but all over the county, “And so I think we have to think broad and big and different about this.” She said that joint City/County initiatives historically have fallen apart, such as GRACE Marketplace (“and then we decided to divide our teams and take our money and go our separate ways”) and the Community Reinvestment Areas. She said she was willing “to step up and say that the County would be a part of a lead effort on this, but it’s really sad to me that the entity that brought the Summit together and does have a majority of the gun violence certainly isn’t also willing to step up… Because at the end of the day, what we’re going to be doing is putting a platform together for community to come and tell us what we’re going to do.”
Alford said maybe they need a “facilitator” instead of a leader, “and to me, it needs to be a third party that doesn’t come under the jurisdiction of either of our entities because… it should be the community’s direction. And so if Santa Fe wants to provide a facilitator, or if somebody else in the community can provide a facilitator, that’s what I want to hear.”
Second County motion passes
Cornell made a motion to “direct County staff to work with Santa Fe and hopefully the City staff to create a community-based Gun Violence Task Force and bring back recommendations for these boards to consider by November 1.” Chuck Chestnut seconded the motion. The County Commission unanimously approved the motion.
Fourth City motion passes
Eastman made a substitute motion on the City side “that City staff work with the County to partner with Santa Fe on a community-based Gun Violence Task Force.” Willits seconded the motion.
Curry told the City Commission that “in anticipation of what came out of the meeting today,” City staff had put $150,000 in their proposed budget for FY24 “for whatever relationships that may require funding.” This is the same amount that the City told the County they could not fund for GRACE Marketplace, earlier in the same meeting.
The four City Commissioners (the others had not returned) voted unanimously to approve the motion.
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