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Racial Justice Town Hall Part 2: Alachua County

BY JENNIFER CABRERA / MAY 6, 2019

Bottom line: the county did not answer the question about how much it has spent on responding to the “racial inequity” study.

Part 1 of this series – Overview and City of Gainesville – is available here.

On Wednesday, April 24, the Alachua County Chapter of the NAACP and the United Church of Gainesville (Racial Justice Task Force) hosted a town hall meeting at the Thelma Boltin Center on “Understanding Racial Inequities in Alachua County: Where are we now?”

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The goal of the meeting was for officials from the city, county, school board, and large employers to explain how their organizations have responded to the January 2018 report, “Understanding Racial Inequity in Alachua County” prepared by the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research (BEBR). 

Five questions were given to each organization before the meeting:

  1. How have the “Inequity Study” results been incorporated into your institution’s plans, goals, and job assignments?
  2. Quantify the specific expenditures that have been allocated toward achieving the above.
  3. How is success in increasing equity being measured by your institution?
  4. What are your institution’s plans for the next 1-5 years for increasing equity?
  5. Provide an anecdote of success that will encourage us in our hope for positive change.

Questions were also taken on notecards from the roughly 160 attendees, and some of the officials gave answers to a few of the questions before time ran out. The remaining question cards were sorted by organization and given to each organization’s representatives at the end of the meeting.

Alachua Chronicle reporters attended the meeting, and we will divide our coverage into separate articles for the City, County, School Board, higher education, and local employers; this article covers the responses from Alachua County.

In his 5-minute presentation, County Commissioner Charles Chestnut started by noting that there were no African-American assistant county managers in 2012 (but he didn’t say how many there are now). Since hiring a Diversity Recruitment Officer, 40% of new hires for emergency services and the fire department have been minorities. They are also hiring a “Diverse Intern” and have proposed an Equity Officer position for 2020 (in addition to the current Equal Opportunity Manager). He also noted an increase in suicide in the area, particularly among the youth.

Question and Answer Period

What about equity in SW Gainesville (Tower Road/SWAG area)? It needs public space.

Chestnut responded that the county has added a clinic and community center in that area, along with a park with soft turf. He mentioned extending 8th Avenue and said that area has “come a long way… it was full of drug activity”. He said the area is served by a neighborhood preservation association and that the county is adding more public spaces, specifically pocket parks. 

Crime is up in the city and county. How can the community help?

Sheriff Sadie Darnell, who attended the meeting but was not on the panel, said people can do “one practical thing”: lock your car and move your valuables out of sight. She also said that if you see something suspicious, you should call 911; they will switch you to an administrative line if it’s not an emergency. She said, “We don’t know what we don’t know.” She said that stolen guns are a big problem; they are often used by people who don’t know how to use them or care for them, so they get into kids’ hands. However, she emphasized that guns themselves are not bad in responsible hands. 

Darnell said that she is “conflicted about not arresting” law-breakers, apparently referring to instructions from the county commission to avoid arresting non-violent drug users. She said she is in favor of second chances “but not about 4th, 5th, or 6th chances.”  She said that law enforcement is not solely responsible for our problems and that law enforcement is too often asked to take on the role of parent. She said that parents sometimes call law enforcement when their children have fights.

Michelle Lieberman, the County Manager, was on the panel and also responded to this question. She said the county has spent $11 million on court services, including probation and pre-trial diversion.

There’s a westward push in Gainesville. How do we bring development east? Government has talked about it for years – when do we see it?

Lieberman responded that the county has targeted areas for development: Waldo Road and 8th Avenue, MLK and 8th Avenue, and the eco-industrial park, near the Leveda Brown Environmental Park and Transfer Station. She said the county is investing $2 million into infrastructure in the eco-industrial park to attract manufacturing and waste-based businesses.

How do we improve public transportation, particularly getting students from the east side to Santa Fe College?

Lieberman spoke about the Last Mile, First Mile Program (as discussed by Mayor Poe in his opening remarks – see Part 1 of our report). Chestnut said that everyone wants more services, but nobody wants higher taxes.

Written response

The county’s written answers provided more details about Chestnut’s opening remarks. The document did not organize answers by responding to the five questions but separated responses by topic. 

Fire Rescue: As stated in Chestnut’s remarks, Fire Rescue has employed a Diversity Recruitment Officer to increase diversity representation in applicant pools and thus hire more minorities.

Growth Management: In this section, the county discussed how they can use their Comprehensive Plan to address racial disparities. Specifically, the document says the Economic element of the Plan provides for monitoring metrics that measure economic opportunity and racial disparities. Other items include supporting local businesses and providing jobs-related skills training; an interconnected multi-modal transportation system to help people get to employment, educational, and entertainment destinations; affordable housing located near major employment centers, high-performing public schools, and public transit; equitable access to health care services; and supporting organizations that provide food assistance.

The Community Support Services Department employs the previously-mentioned Diversity Intern. The document says the first Diversity Intern (2017) created a community event to educate parents and entertain children. This intern also recommended changes in the county’s website and printed materials “to reflect a more diverse presentation.”

The new Diversity Intern (who started mid-April) will focus on responding to the Racial Inequity study.

Other items listed for Community Support Services include the hiring of a Hispanic female and bi-racial male; ensuring that the department has a diverse panel for all new hires; the NewboRN Home Visiting Program; the CHILD Center in the SWAG area; the Social and Emotional Development program; a Gaps Analysis for Children’s Trust of Alachua County; advisory boards to review and respond to the Truth in Reconciliation process; a Crisis Center to address mental health concerns; and a Mobile Response Team grant to respond to youth, age 0 to 25, who are experiencing a mental health crisis. 

The document lists specific successes of these programs; you can review them here.

The document says more about the new Equity Officer position, which is “envisioned to manage the organization-wide effort to support the development and implementation of policies and programs that foster equity, diversity and inclusion externally … In addition, this position would also be responsible for leading the County’s Truth and Reconciliation process.”

The final section of the document describes the Equal Opportunity Office, which assists employees with collecting unpaid or underpaid wages for work performed in Alachua County. The office also proposed amendments to the Human Rights Ordinance to provide new protections from discrimination in housing based on veteran and service member status, citizenship status or being the victim of dating violence, domestic violence or stalking (all of these except for lawful income status have now been passed by the County Commission). 

The county did not answer the question about how much money has been spent or allocated toward equity initiatives. 

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