HomeLocal governmentConfirmation of County Economic Development Manager fails after equity issues are raised
Confirmation of County Economic Development Manager fails after equity issues are raised
July 17, 2021
BY JENNIFER CABRERA
A consent agenda item to confirm James Coats as the new Economic Development Manager for Alachua County turned into a discussion that lasted nearly two hours at the July 17 Alachua County Commission meeting, ultimately ending in a vote against confirming him.
The consent agenda included an offer letter to Coats at a salary of $90k, Coats’ resume, and 20 letters of recommendation from entities all over the community, including businesses, academia, and governmental officials. Items are generally placed on the consent agenda because they are uncontroversial.
During the discussion about adopting the agenda, County Manager Michele Lieberman requested that the item be pulled from the consent agenda without giving a reason. When the agenda item came up later in the meeting, Lieberman introduced it by saying that Coats may not have a “traditional resume with Development Director in his background” but that “he is a successful business entrepreneur who has provided those skills to grow businesses within the community and certainly speaks the language of business, and I think that will be a great benefit to Alachua County in its economic development goals moving forward.”
Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler spoke up for Coats, saying she had known him since he was in college. She said she had introduced Coats, “along with five other young entrepreneurs,” to Lieberman. “I’m really surprised at the pushback, to tell you the truth, because we encourage entrepreneurship here… And so I am puzzled by the idea that we would not encourage our young entrepreneurs to step out of the business world into a world of public service and use those skills to the benefit of the community.”
You know, we’ve said as a commission that we have a strategic plan that’s going to have a lens of equity and a lens of sustainability and resiliency as our key goals… and yet we only had five white men interview for this position. – Commissioner Anna Prizzia
Commissioner Anna Prizzia said, “I have to beg to disagree… I think we need someone in this job that has a lot of experience… My bigger issue isn’t with Mr. Coats… My issue with this thing is the process by which it went down. You know, we’ve said as a commission that we have a strategic plan that’s going to have a lens of equity and a lens of sustainability and resiliency as our key goals… and yet we only had five white men interview for this position. I believe we need equity and diversity in this role. We had a diverse pool… we had over half women and almost half BIPOC candidates applied for this job, yet we only interviewed five white people, and we’re giving the job to someone that does not have the requisite experience in workforce development or economic development… We need to re-post this position so we get a diverse pool with a focus on equity.”
Commissioner Mary Alford said the County has done a good job with diversity. “Our job is purely to determine if he is qualified or not, and I will tell you I’ve looked hard to actually say he wasn’t qualified.” She said that Coats takes a chance on hiring people “that no one else would hire,” whether that’s someone with a previous conviction or mental health issues.
Commissioner Chuck Chestnut said he was “concerned about the issue of equity,” but in speaking with the Manager, he was told it was not an issue of equity, but “this is the first time I’ve heard that there were women and others that applied and were not considered… so now I have some reservations.” He asked whether the County’s Equity Officer had any input into the hire.
Lieberman said the County has “a system of checks and balances. Every hire that we have goes through a process… It is reviewed for diversity by Ms. Chung.” She said 10 applicants were referred for the position and reviewed for minimum qualifications, “and to be clear, race is not anywhere that we can see when those applications are reviewed… And I was not part of that process… I was not part of the interview process, either.”
Heather Akpan, Human Resources (HR) Director for Alachua County, said her department reviews all applications that come in to check for minimum qualifications. The minimum for this job was a bachelor’s degree and 5 years’ experience. Coats “did not have a bachelor’s degree in that area,” but experience can substitute for education, and he had at least 9 years’ experience, so four of those can substitute for the bachelor’s degree.
Jackie Chung, Equal Opportunity Manager, said there were 49 applicants, and 25 were referred by HR after being screened for minimum qualifications. There were 17 males and 7 females, with one candidate not checking a box for gender. There were 16 white, 5 black, 1 Hispanic, 2 Asian, and 1 checked the box for American Indian/Alaska native. To narrow down the interviewing process, the hiring manager, Gina Peebles, selected those with 10 years of economic development experience, which produced five applicants to be interviewed. The hiring manager decided on the criteria for narrowing down the pool.
Chair Ken Cornell said he was satisfied with the process and the fact that Coats would be on a one-year probation.
Wheeler moved to confirm Coats.
“I know this, that one of the major contributory factors to gun violence… is economic development and the way that it’s developed… We need to go back to the drawing board… We know and understand that our processes are laced with inequities.” – Chanae Jackson
During public comment on the motion, three people spoke in favor of the hire, and seven people spoke against it. Chanae Jackson said, “I believe equity is a verb, and it’s a process for creating parity and outcomes across demographic groups that are often starting from very different places. And the reason that I wanted to center my comments around equity is because it was very interesting that we decided the person who has all the privilege to be able to be the person that we accommodate for and states that they have 10 years of economic development… I know this, that one of the major contributory factors to gun violence… is economic development and the way that it’s developed… We need to go back to the drawing board… We know and understand that our processes are laced with inequities. That’s literally why we decided to use the equity lens.”
Kevin Thorpe spoke in support of Coats, saying that Coats had wanted to relocate to the east side of Gainesville specifically to employ “people who would ordinarily not be employed.”
James Thompson said Coats’ “primary achievement is not planting himself in east Gainesville or being a successful entrepreneur but securing a sweetheart deal from the City of Gainesville… By the way,… his business is making armor, bulletproof student backpacks, and gun holsters to help prosecute our military adventurism, our drug war against working people of color, and also public fear… It’s clear to me that we need a do-over.”
Pastor Ron Rawls said, “I’m not really educated on the issue of hiring Mr. Coats. But I am hearing a lot of privilege… I can’t have an educated opinion on whether or not the hire should be made, but… I’m very good at being able to smell smoke and knowing that there is something going on that you need to take a second look at. I encourage you to listen to the community.”
Akpan said the process used to hire Coats was the same process they’ve used for every hire since she was hired for her position three years ago. The substitution of experience for education is a formula that is used for every position.
“I’m not speaking as this person who is seen as this rich guy who drives around in Batmobiles in Gainesville. I’m speaking as a person who was homeless in this community, who grew a business in this community, and has listened to a bunch of assumptions and still wants this job because I know I will do good for this community.” – James Coats
Coats said statements had been made that he has no education in economic development: “I do. My degree is an intelligence analyst that specializes in understanding society and how those societies work economically. I have advanced studies in mathematics, business, and economics at the University of Florida… I do have economic development experience. It just doesn’t say economic development degree… We have an amazing university here that does have an economics degree, and some of the courses you get to take are language and culture, which I have; business strategies, which I’m a guest lecturer at UF for; business policies, which I’m on the National Institute of Justice and the International Trades and Arms Relations Committee for the United States government; managing entrepreneurial enterprises, which I’m a guest lecturer for at the University of Florida; essentials of entrepreneurship, a guest lecturer at University of Florida; finance and entrepreneurship, guest lecturer, University of Florida; social entrepreneurship, guest lecturer, University of Florida; and their suggestion is a minor in social sciences, which just so happens to be what I have. But I have additional training… that has been coupled with quantitative analysis, critical thinking, statistics, advanced calculus and trigonometry, psychology, law, ethics, accountability, and negotiations… I’m not speaking as this person who is seen as this rich guy who drives around in Batmobiles in Gainesville. I’m speaking as a person who was homeless in this community, who grew a business in this community, and has listened to a bunch of assumptions and still wants this job because I know I will do good for this community.”
Chestnut said that the County had attracted more diverse hires since he was first elected in 2012. “I don’t second guess, I don’t micromanage, but this is the very first time as a commissioner I have sat here and I’ve had citizens to come and talk about someone being hired by the County. Now, that raised a whole lot of question marks in my head… I have some reservations today. I can’t sit here in the way I feel right now and vote in the affirmative for someone I really don’t know and don’t know anything about, don’t know anything about his business, but I trust the Manager and I trust Gina, and I trust everybody, but when I hear citizens come to speak about a hire, it raises that bar a little bit more higher for me, to really question things and to consider things. I can’t be in favor of this today.”
Alford said this is the same process that was used to hire other candidates, both white and non-white, and “sometimes it’s a white guy that’s going to rise to the top.” She said citizens were speaking both for and against Coats. “Our job is to determine if Mr. Coats is qualified, and in my mind he’s qualified, and I’m sorry I can’t vote.” Alford had called in to the meeting from her car, and Cornell had announced at the beginning of the meeting that she was not able to vote.
Prizzia said her issue was with the process after it gets through HR and into the hiring manager’s hands. “I didn’t feel like we interviewed a diverse pool… My questions got leaked to the community and it became a community issue, and people started to look at the person that we’re putting into the position… I wanted to put it out there that my issue is the process that happened once it got through the initial screening. I did not feel like it was transparent, I did not feel like I was being told the truth, and at the end of the day, this is the result.”
Chestnut said, “Color has nothing to do with it,” but he wasn’t comfortable with the hire because so many citizens were speaking against it: “Some of the phone calls that came in, I highly respect Reverend Thorpe and Reverend Rawls—“
Cornell interjected, “They’re on opposite sides.”
Chestnut continued, “Right, they’re on opposite sides. Then to hear Commissioner Prizzia, it kind of raises questions. At this point, I can’t do that today. My vote will probably be no.”
Wheeler made a substitute motion to continue the discussion until they had five commissioners present, but that died for lack of a second.
The vote on confirming Coats was 2-2, with Chestnut and Prizzia in dissent, so it failed.
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