After a first round of community racial dialogue meetings, two City Council members say they are ready to back culturally diverse programming and to help recruit elected officials who better match the city’s ethnic and socioeconomic diversity.
In separate interviews, Councilmembers Andy Bauman and Chris Burnett agreed with many of the suggestions participants in the first round of Civic Dinners made to increase inclusion and diversity in the city.
The city sponsored 44 Civic Dinners with 341 attendees in July and August, using a virtual platform and questions provided by a private company called Civic Dinners. Participants discussed what they saw as the city’s strengths and weaknesses in belonging and inclusion.
City spokesperson Sharon Kraun presented a report on the Civic Dinners at the Nov. 3 City Council meeting. In the report, most participants said the city needs to schedule more of the virtual meetings to continue the dialogue.
“I think the Civic Dinners in and of themselves are a great example of the kind of activity that can facilitate dialogue and understanding amongst demographic groups,” Bauman said.
Burnett said the discussions started the process and got people engaged. The city will use ideas from the discussions as a framework for any changes that are warranted and for a broader dialogue, he said.
Some participants said the city’s leadership should have participated in the Civic Dinners.
Bauman said at the Nov. 3 City Council meeting and again when interviewed that he was disappointed that city staff and representatives of Civic Dinners kept them from joining the discussions. Kraun explained during her report to the City Council that councilmembers were kept from taking part in the first virtual sessions to make the residents feel more free and open during discussions.
The city plans to host more Civic Dinners in 2021, during which city leaders will get a chance to participate. No dates have been scheduled, Kraun said.
Residents said they want more diverse programming in the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center and more programs to “highlight the communities’ rich tapestry,” Kraun’s report said.
Bauman said the city can follow the example of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival to engage with a diverse set of communities. He serves as co-chair of the festival’s engagement committee. In that role he helps direct engagement with the Muslim community, the Black community, the LGBTQ community and others in its programming.
The issues of inclusion do not just involve racial and ethnic backgrounds, he said. It’s also true of socioeconomic backgrounds.
Kraun said many participants in the Civic Dinners want more diversity in City Hall.
Bauman said the City Council hired a new city manager, Andrea Surratt, in part because she has a track record of hiring, promoting and training women to leadership positions. The city’s previous head of public works was Black. The city adopted an equal employment opportunity policy that expanded beyond what federal law requires, he said. And he points out the city was the first in metro Atlanta to pass a hate crime ordinance that he sponsored in 2019.
Many participants in the discussions want the city to put money into affordable housing. Bauman and Burnett cited a housing needs assessment currently being performed as a step the city is taking to address the issue.
The lack of affordable housing makes even hiring a more diverse city staff difficult, Burnett said. The housing needs assessment is showing the challenges of more affordable housing, especially single-family housing. He said it can be difficult for an employee with a family.
“And it’s hard to find those homes in Sandy Springs for them to purchase because we have gotten to be an expensive market,” he said.
Both councilmembers agreed with Civic Dinner participants that the city leadership should reflect the city’s diversity. They agreed that current leaders should reach out to community leaders who are minorities to ask them to consider serving.
With the exception of one woman – Councilmember Jody Reichel – the City Council and mayor are all White males, Burnett said.
“The question really is how do we engage more diversity of candidates so that we’ll get a broad representation of our community that’s willing to run and willing to serve,” he said.
Burnett agreed that as elected officials they need to look to the next generation of leaders to evaluate and help bring more diversity to elections.
Much of that will happen through their individual connections in the community, on charitable boards, school boards and other places where they serve outside of their roles as council members, Burnett said, where they’ll get to know a diverse base of people.
“And then, you know, we, we go to someone and say, ‘Hey, I understand this particular seat is going to be coming available. I think you ought to run,’” he said.
It’s a big request of people to campaign and run for a race, he said. Burnett said that grooming candidates from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities through the development authority, planning commission and ethics commission could give them a stepping-stone to council positions.
A large number of Civic Dinner participants want the city to establish a diversity committee.
Mayor Rusty Paul responded to that request by announcing at the Nov. 3 meeting that he is making plans for a “diversity and inclusion commission.” Paul said he hopes to have it established in January.
Burnett said this commission is a step in the right direction to make the city more inclusive. Bauman suggested the city may follow other communities’ lead to increase diversity through addition of an arts and cultural commission and an environmental sustainability board.
The mayor nominates the members for the boards and commissions, with the City Council approving the appointments, Bauman said. Paul recently appointed Ed Ukaonu, a businessman who is Black, to the board of the Sandy Springs Development Authority. The mayor is authorized to make such nominations, with council approval.
“I’m very hopeful that we will continue to do that, continue to look for members of our community to get them engaged if they’re so inclined to serve,” Burnett said.
The challenge for a council member or mayor is the amount of time it takes. Many people can’t afford to take the time out of their professional lives to hold public office, Bauman said.
Correction: A quote from City Councilman Andy Bauman on facilitating dialogue should have said demographic groups.