Portland panel to propose racial equity office, director

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The ad-hoc Portland committee tasked with addressing issues of racial equality is preparing to ask the city to make its work a standing part of the municipal government in the form of a commission or office with a full-time director.

Racial Equity Steering Committee members discussed their intention Dec. 3, in a meeting where the city attached incorrect Zoom information to the published agenda – not the first time the group’s work has been difficult for the public to observe.

The committee plans to hear its first public comments during a Dec. 17 meeting, which will begin at 5 p.m. As with regular city meetings, speakers will be limited to three minutes.

The 13-member panel, co-chaired by City Councilor Pious Ali and former Bowdoin College professor Lelia DeAndrade, was originally supposed to have a report for the City Council by Jan. 22, 2021. The group is now planning to ask for an extension, citing the scope of work it is expected to accomplish.

The proposal for a racial equity commission or office of racial equity is being written by committee member and former City Councilor Peter O’Donnell. He said he wants to be ready to present it to the council as soon as possible, and ahead of the next round of city budget discussions.

He said the committee may have to consider bringing “interim recommendations” to the council, to ensure they receive funding, rather than waiting for a final report.

Another committee member, Suheir Alaskari, said she would like to see the proposal include staff because she doesn’t want all the work to fall on one person’s shoulders.

“I believe a director needs a staff, they need a team to work on these issues,” Alaskari said.

The group’s researcher will look into whether other cities have similar offices, and if so, what size staff they need.

Ali said for the office to be successful, it must not be a “lip-service office,” and the committee must recommend proper staffing. But he admitted there are also budgetary concerns to consider regarding what the city can afford.

DeAndrade said it is important for the proposed office to be staffed with more than just one person because these types of positions can be “isolating and destructive” when it relies on only one voice.

“You end up being a slave to many masters, and nobody is happy with you,” she said.

Committee member Jonathan Sahrbeck, who is the Cumberland County district attorney, agreed it is necessary for a position this important to have staff assistance. He noted Gordon Smith, director of Gov. Janet Mills’ opioid response program, started as the only person in the program and quickly became overwhelmed by how big an undertaking it was.

The committee also began discussing proposals from member Deb Ibonwa for the city to address racial disparities in the homeless population, which also included the need for additional city staff.

Ibonwa’s proposals would require the General Assistance office to track racial demographic information and make it public and would create racial equity ombudsman positions in the city’s Health and Human Services departments. They would also add more staff to the GA office. 

DeAndrade said she has concerns with some language in the proposals, and emphasized that the committee’s window of opportunity will not remain open very long.

“I think this is a precious moment around racial equity, and I don’t know that the City Council is going to continue to be interested in and invested in this,” she said, adding the city is always facing new challenges that require the council’s time.

Ali said he also wants to be conscious of the city’s financial situation, saying he doubted funding would be available for ombudsmen in every HHS department. He said he wanted to create a sustainable model that could succeed in obtaining funding.

“I want to see a lot of change, but I also want to be realistic of what we can ask and what we can get,” he said.

The committee will discuss Ibonwa’s proposals again next week.