Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst started off the first meeting of the city’s Social Justice, Race and Equity Commission Dec. 17 by making clear his intent for the group.
“I didn’t want to just check a box,” he said at the virtual meeting. “I wanted to dive deep.”
“I know this isn’t going to solve the world’s problems,” Ernst continued, but said that “we are living in times of great mistrust, upheaval and fear.”
The 37-member, diverse group of volunteers was created after the nationwide protests in early summer against racial injustice and police brutality. It will review the city’s vision, mission statement and charter, its policies and procedures, public engagement and communication outreach.
The group, divided into four different topic committees, will also be looking at the Brookhaven Police Department’s use of force policy, oversight and accountability to identify, evaluate and report potential recommendations to the city council.
Commission Chairman John Funny told the group not to go into their mission thinking there were any problems to find.
“This doesn’t mean there’s an issue,” he said. It’s just a look at what’s going on and a chance to change the city for the better.
The hour-and-a-half meeting was an introduction and explainer session on how everything is going to play out in the next 12 or so months the board will be meeting.
City Manager Christian Sigman gave the group a look at the city’s organization and the demographic make-up of the city staff. He gave the commission a breakdown of the race and gender of the 168 employees. Of those, 36.3% are women and 63.1% are men. The racial breakdown is 52.5% White; 26.9% Black; 2.5% Asian; 15% Hispanic; 0.6% Pacific Islander and 1.3% two or more races. Another 0.6% chose not to identify their race.
Sigman did the same for the police department, which Funny called one of the most diverse in the state. There are 26 women and 74 men. The police department make-up is 53% White, 23% Black, 3% Asian and 19% Hispanic.
Everything started out casually enough as commissioners got used to the Zoom technology – the cameras catch everything. Rabbi John Hearshan was still eating his Chinese food. Funny still wore his “I Voted” peach sticker from earlier in the day, and one commissioner said he’d changed shirts three times to make sure he didn’t blend into the background.
Rev. David Alexander read a poem by Barry Middleton as the invocation. It talked about light bringing hope and justice to the world.
“I hope we may bring our lanterns to the table,” he said.
City Council members Joe Gebbia and Madeleine Simmons attended the meeting.
“This is a real historic moment for Brookhaven,” said Gebbia.
City Attorney Chris Balch went over legal issues dealing with being a public entity. Now that the members are on a public commission, they need to be careful to keep their private and public roles separate, he said.
He said someone could use a public records request to look at their text messages if they brought up commission business.
“Don’t do that,” he said. “It’s more important than, ‘Don’t text and drive,’” he said.
Chrysalis Lab is a group hired by the city to facilitate and organize the group. Lesley Grady from the company said the commission would be divided into committees, including a look at the police department and the city’s hiring practices. Before the next meeting, scheduled for Jan. 21, the group would be given surveys to help decide what their interests are and where they might best serve, Grady said.
“We’re committed to promoting honest dialogue,” she said.
At the end of the meeting, there was a public comment section where anyone had three minutes to speak. The instructions were given in Spanish also. There were no takers.
For details on the group or to watch the taped meeting, see the commission’s webpage here.