County commission moves “aspirational” equity charter language to June 9 hearing
BY JENNIFER CABRERA
In addition to making no decision on youth activities and getting up-to-date COVID-19 information from the health department, the county commission talked about funding mechanisms for housing the homeless and potential charter review amendments during their May 26 meeting.
Moving the medically-vulnerable into housing
Regarding protecting medically-vulnerable homeless individuals from COVID-19, Alachua County Director of Community Support Services Claudia Tuck said County staff has been working with GRACE staff to make a list of people who were referred for non-congregate shelter. She said the list was “substantially revised” from the list that had been submitted the prior week, with only 9 of the same people on it. Five of those on the new list are no longer at GRACE, so the list currently consists of 21 people in 20 households (because 2 are a couple). They will try to place 11 of them in permanent supportive housing and 10 in rapid re-housing. They had also started working with 5 people on the prior list, so they continued working with them.
The current funding plan includes $191,830 to place 12 households in permanent supportive housing and $60,000 to place 6 individuals in “bridge rapid re-housing” for 8 months. GRACE also has some grants and new state funding. That adds up to $251,830.
Then they will continue to work from the Dignity Village prioritization list to provide permanent supportive housing to an additional 10 households for $64,000.
Tuck also suggested setting aside $184,170 to help Alachua County households who need help with housing costs because of COVID-19. The total of all of that is $500,000, which is the amount the county commission budgeted for housing support for this fiscal year.
County Manager Michele Lieberman added, “We were able to place those couple of households in pretty quick order, so I think that… taking months and months… to be able to place somebody, we’ve not had that issue. I think it was just a matter of a couple weeks.”
Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler moved that they move ahead with those budget allocations.
Commission Chair Robert Hutchinson asked what is “rapid” about rapid re-housing. Tuck answered that “rapid re-housing predominantly means using the housing-first model, so the person is placed directly into housing, and they are supported in housing. It is typically up to two years, with a declining budget, so that you might start supporting someone 100% in housing, and as you assist them in increasing their revenue, their income, you would gradually reduce until they’re able to sustain. When we reviewed this list, there are some individuals that we are suggesting using rapid re-housing as a bridge to see how they do, and if they do not make it because we think they really need the longer-term permanent supportive housing, we then move them into that.”
The motion passed, 5-0
Joint Planning Agreement between the County and the City of Alachua
The commission also discussed the Joint Planning Agreement that was passed by the City of Alachua and the Alachua County Commission in December of 2018. The agreement stipulates some requirements to be met if that land is annexed into the City of Alachua in the future. After hearing the presentation, none of the commissioners were interested in changing the agreement.
“Equity” charter amendment
The commission discussed several potential amendments to the county’s charter, including the “equity” charter amendment. The staff’s recommended ballot language is, “Shall the Alachua County Charter be amended to require the Board of County Commissioners to examine all existing County policies for elements of racial, economic, and gender bias in the design and delivery of County programs or services; to identify and act to mitigate and improve upon the effects, patterns, and disparities imposed by said bias; and to endeavor that all future policies will be free from such bias?”
Missy Daniels, Alachua County’s Growth Management Director, said that after the Friendship 7 study on racial disparities in Alachua County came out, the county commission asked to add equity principles to their comprehensive plan. “Two of those key areas were high quality education and employment, to address equity issues… we did a lot of it in the economic element, the community health element, land use, public schools…” The County also passed a county-wide diversity and inclusion plan in 2010, “and the primary goal was to ensure that the diversity and inclusion values be factored into all county policies, procedures, programs, and services.”
Daniels said staff-recommended next steps would be to hire the equity staff person that was previously approved and to look into membership in the Governmental Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE).
“You don’t need a charter initiative”
County Attorney Sylvia Torres said she wanted to remind the board that “everything that’s being done in here, you can do on your own authority. You don’t need a charter initiative… And this particular charter initiative does not have anything to do with other governments in Alachua County; it only has to do with the Alachua County government. So to the extent that you put it in a charter, it can go just as well in an ordinance.” She also pointed out that the deadlines in the charter amendment could compel them to do things they may or may not be able to do in the allotted time.
Commissioner Chuck Chestnut said he would like to see the charter amendment go before voters, just to see “how the community really feels about it.” But he also understood that they could do the same thing with an ordinance.
Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler wanted to just move ahead with the proposal without waiting for a ballot initiative in November. “If we are really serious about addressing some of these issues of inequity, then we need to move forward without permission from anybody. We just need to take a stand and do this. If we put it on the ballot and it fails, what does that say about our community? I may not want to know that. I just want us to lead forward on this and get there right away, rather than waiting until November and having a bunch of conversation about something that shouldn’t even require a conversation at this point. My thought is that we just need to take a stand on this immediately, whether through ordinance or putting it into the comprehensive plan and then acting.”
Commissioner Mike Byerly asked if the Charter Review Commission (CRC) had any specific examples of county policies that “would be the target of an amendment like this.” CRC Chair Penny Wheat said the only policies she remembers being brought forward were “purchasing policies, as it regards small businesses, and perhaps some of the insurance requirements that small businesses cannot meet.”
“What would it obligate us to do differently, and how would we go about proving in a court of law that we were doing it?”
Byerly asked the county attorney: “If… this… were approved by the voters, what would it obligate us to do differently, and how would we go about proving in a court of law that we were doing it?” Torres said that it could be addressed by including a paragraph in every policy that explains how the County has considered the impact of the policy on equity.
Byerly asked, “I think I have a good handle on what gender and racial bias is. What is economic bias? And where and how is it defined? And what would that obligate us to do?”
Torres responded that economic bias could mean “that certain services are open to someone because they are well-to-do versus making the decision that services are not available to people who are not well-to-do. I can’t give you an example necessarily.” She said it could be something like paving roads on the west versus paving roads on the east side. But she said they could consider other factors like traffic patterns and the age of the road.
“My feeling at this point, unless I get a lot of new information, is that our charter is not the place for this work or this initiative.”
Byerly concluded, “My feeling at this point, unless I get a lot of new information, is that our charter is not the place for this work or this initiative. It belongs in our Comprehensive Plan and in our adopted policies and in NGO cooperation on the part of our county and municipalities. That’s the level and the way in which this issue should be addressed. And I think we are doing exactly that. So it’s not clear to me how placing this in the charter would help and what it would obligate us to do. So I’m not comfortable supporting moving it forward, but I could be talked out of that, because again, this is the first time we have had a discussion about it.”
Commissioner Ken Cornell agreed that a charter amendment isn’t needed but that the issue could be addressed in the Unified Land Development Code and Comprehensive Plan. “And so I’m in favor of the issue; I’m not in favor of putting it in the charter. I don’t think it needs to, I think we are doing that work.”
Commission Chair Robert Hutchinson said, “I’m very much in favor of this. I think our charter has to state these things in it because it’s that important an issue.”
“This commission is not gonna always be there. There’s going to be new commissions. And they can come along and erase all of it and go backwards.”
Chestnut added, “I agree with most of the statements that were said, but I’m not gonna always be there. This commission is not gonna always be there. There’s going to be new commissions. And they can come along and erase all of it and go backwards.”
Lieberman spoke up to say that while the cost of joining GARE had earlier been given as $1,000, it would actually be $5,000 per year. She added, “The one concern that I have regarding this from an operational side is what does it mean for us to act to mitigate? What is that mitigation, especially as it relates to things like economic? So to the extent that that requires perhaps expenditure of substantial funds, things like that, I’m not sure who is going to decide whether we, in fact, acted to mitigate or not. So that’s just from an operational point of view. Because that’s an action we are required to take.”
“The charter is not a repository for our kind of hopes and dreams and aspirations and language that is like that.”
Byerly said, “The charter is not a repository for our kind of hopes and dreams and aspirations and language that is like that. The comprehensive plan… gets more specific… If you look through our charter… everything in there is very unambiguous… After listening now for an hour of this discussion, I’m no clearer than I was before what this new language would obligate us to do. It is broad aspirational language, and it is something we all aspire to… And I guess I would just turn to you, either Chuck or Hutch, since you seem to be speaking in favor of this: Can you tell us what economic bias means and what this would obligate us to do?”
Hutchinson replied, “The thing we particularly advocate for is, look at how the policies that we enact disproportionately affect poor people… I think I would have not necessarily used the word economic. I might have used the word housing, because we know there was patterns of housing bias in this community that have gone on for more than 100 years.”
Chestnut added, “In some communities, a certain percentage of new development… goes to maybe a minority business that would not have the opportunity, like a woman business or an African-American type of business would not have the opportunity to bid because they don’t actually have the resources to present a bid to get the thing. But in some communities, they say a certain percentage of a certain project has to have some minority business a part of it… Sometimes you are at a disadvantage because you don’t have the expertise as a small business to apply for certain grants and certain loans and stuff, which you get overlooked because you don’t have the financial stability to move forward… Like getting loans from banks. Sometimes you have to have a real good balance sheet before the bank gives a minority business a loan. Those are some of the stumbling blocks they run into.
“Also dealing with disparities. How else do you deal with the disparities? By really decreasing that gap… Don’t let the gap get wider. Try to reduce that gap so that we can move forward as a community and everybody, even women businesses, struggles to get those resources to actually bid on issues like that. And also actually in construction and building, those small minority businesses don’t ever get a shot at bidding at it because they really don’t have the financial backing to do it.”
“I’m more confused and concerned than before about what this would obligate us to do.”
Byerly asked, “You’re saying that if we put this in the charter and it’s approved, we are going to have a program wherein we give money to businesses or individuals who want to start …”
Chestnut: “No, no. I’m not talking about that.”
Byerly: “So we have to mitigate the economic bias by leveling the economic playing field and giving them money. How else do you do that?”
Chestnut: “I don’t think it’s also necessary giving money. I think it’s giving them the opportunity to do the job…”
Byerly: “You said they couldn’t compete.”
Chestnut: “They are capable of doing the job, but it’s just that the criteria that they have a hard time meeting to be able to do the job. That’s the stumbling block for some businesses. Especially small businesses.”
Byerly: “They don’t have the financial resources to compete, basically, is what you are saying. And that’s what economic bias gets at. And this would obligate us to do something about that. And I’m not sure what Alachua County can do. I’m more confused and concerned than before about what this would obligate us to do.”
It’s “time for aspirational wording in the charter”
Cornell said it might be “the time for aspirational wording in the charter.”
Hutchinson proposed a revised wording for the ballot language: “Shall the Alachua County Charter be amended to require the Board of County Commissioners to examine county policies for elements of racial, economic, and gender bias in the design and delivery of County programs or services, and to identify and act to mitigate and improve upon the effects, patterns, and disparities imposed by such bias?”
Cornell moved to have a public hearing on the above ballot language, with Chestnut seconding the motion.
Torres said she wasn’t completely comfortable with the language: “I think that there is some directive language in there that makes me uncomfortable. But I would certainly argue to a court that there’s lots of aspiration in there as well.”
“We need to get this thing started, and this is the way to do it.”
Hutchinson said, “I like the fact that it makes the attorney slightly uncomfortable because it pushes us to actually do something rather than have nice words… if something is wrong about this, some future county commission or citizens’ initiative can put a charter amendment on there to fix it. We need to get this thing started, and this is the way to do it.”
Byerly said that if they’re going to be aspirational, they should substitute “climate change” for “racial, economic, and gender bias.” He continued, “Anybody against trying to ameliorate or mitigate climate change? Or are y’all a bunch of climate change deniers? Because, in my view, in terms of the threat to human civilization, is much greater there than what we are now discussing, given what Alachua County is already talking about and doing. So I’ll ask you—it’s not too late.
“We can put this in our charter. It’s in our comp plan. It’s in our policies. But if we care about it and we want people talking about it, then we want a prod that will make us do something. So let’s put it in our charter: Shall the Alachua County Charter be amended to require the Board of County Commissioners to examine all existing County policies for elements that promote climate change in the design and delivery of county programs or services to identify and act to mitigate and improve upon the effects, patterns, and disparities imposed by those biases and endeavor that all future policies will be free from such effects?
“That kind of wishy-washy language doesn’t belong in our charter”
“Now, why should that not be in the county charter, because all five of us believe in that? And the answer is because that kind of wishy-washy language doesn’t belong in our charter. Our charter is about how government is set up. It delineates the constitutional officers; it defines specific legal actions we have to take. It’s not a clearinghouse for us to have philosophical discussions. So I would again ask you to keep the focus where it belongs, using the tools that we can actually affect this issue: the comp plan, the LDRs, our relationships with organizations in the community. Keep the focus there. You distract people by thinking that sticking it in the charter is going to make a difference, and all it’s going to do is clutter up our charter. Is anyone opposed to us moving forward with a climate change language? … If we’re going to do this, then there are a lot of things I want to start putting in the charter…
“The implication of statements like that is if you are against this, you don’t think those things are important, and that’s nonsense. The question is whether or not it belongs in the charter of Alachua County. Again, there’s a specific purpose for the charter. Read it. It’s short. It’s short, and it’s clear. And I came up with climate change, but there are half a dozen other things I’d like to put in there, too. If we are going to move those kinds of discussions to the charter, why stop with this one?”
The motion to move the proposal forward to a hearing on June 9 passed 4-1, with Byerly in dissent. Cornell said that right now, he’s not in favor of putting aspirational wording in the charter and would likely vote no on June 9, but for now he is willing to move it forward.
Commission puts natural resource protection amendment on the ballot
The commission also considered whether to put the following charter amendment on the November ballot: “Shall the Alachua County Home Rule Charter Section 4.1 be amended to authorize countywide protection of certain natural resources by establishing that the more stringent of county or municipal ordinances for such purpose shall prevail to the extent of any conflict and be enforceable countywide?”
The “certain natural resources” are defined as “listed species habitat, significant geologic features, strategic ecosystems, or significant habitat, all of which are defined in the Alachua County Comprehensive Plan.”
The commission voted unanimously to put the amendment on the ballot.
The politicians are hypocrites. They continuously reek of racial and economic bias. What have they done for the eastside of the county or city? They continue to allow urban sprawl westward but don’t do anything to encourage eastern growth. How many medical/ER facilities are east of main street? Don’t count the Alachua County Health Department. Yet drive west on the majority of major roads and either UF Shands or NFRMC are within half mile of one another.
Don’t be fooled by the “fake” concern they allow you to see. They continue to give away property to non-taxpaying organizations or use our money to fund their own political agendas. Are we as a community that blind or ignorant to see what’s been going on? There will be a reckoning one day when these leaders have what they want…a community who they have designated worthy to live in Alachua County and Gainesville.