Lansing Mayor Andy Schor is vowing to turn community feedback into action plans after a three-part “input series” on racial justice and police divestment wrapped up last week. But some residents are voicing concerns over a lack of transparency that could affect the process.
Over the next few months, Schor will turn his focus to the Racial Justice and Equity Alliance — his handpicked team of about 40 mostly Black community leaders — to chart a course for a more inclusive and equitable path forward in the capital city.
The alliance will utilize feedback collected at three separate virtual forums over the last few weeks, divide into work groups focused on broad categories (like housing and public safety) and turn over a series of policy recommendations next year for Schor to turn into meaningful action.
“Racial justice and equity require action now, and a plan for the future,” Schor told City Pulse on Tuesday. “We need to continue to take action, and to plan for even bolder action every day.”
That bold action, however, will require the alliance to be sworn to secrecy.
Apparently not all residents will be allowed to speak. Two people who are suing the city for alleged discrimination were not recognized when they sought to speak at the alliance’s third and last public input-gathering video conference.
And now some are questioning whether the true focus is on actual reforms or damage control.
“I didn’t see the mayor’s input sessions but I understand they were not well attended and it was kind of a sham, as expected,” said Councilman Brandon Betz. “I think the mayor is blind to racial equity issues. I haven’t seen any real promises for change. Everything has just been symbolic.”
Schor confirmed last week that members of his alliance will be asked to sign a “confidentiality” contract (essentially a non-disclosure agreement) that mandates all members of the alliance keep the content of their closed-door discussions just that — behind closed doors.
None have yet been asked to sign the agreement, but they were briefed on the concept at their first meeting last week. Members of the public — and the media — are not allowed to attend, but members described the initial meeting as largely organizational and about setting goals.
“I want people to have the ability to have a free flow of thoughts and ideas,” Schor explained. “We’re starting out with confidentiality and moving to recommendations that will be public. That’s a pretty common process when people are working on something leading up to a final product.”
Randy Watkins, who also serves on the mayor’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council, said he hasn’t had to sign a similar agreement for his other appointments. He said he would only sign the contract if it was justified, perhaps if officials are sharing confidential personnel details.
Schor later clarified: That type of personnel information will not be shared with the alliance.
Councilman Adam Hussain, who was appointed to the alliance but quit before it met last week, said confidentiality could make it difficult for members of the alliance to engage with the public, but he had hoped that the alliance work groups would operate with continued public dialogue.
He also said he left the alliance because the advisory role clashed with his role as Councilman. If he stayed, Hussain would essentially be crafting recommendations for himself, he explained.
“My hope is this body gets to work independent of elected official influence,” Hussain added.
Alliance member Susan Cancro said she’d have to review any agreement before signing it, but recognized the importance of being able to facilitate an open dialogue without fear of suggestions — including the bad ones — being made public and amplified as real proposals.
“We’ve got to choose the moments that we want to share with the community,” said Human Relations and Community Services Director Kim Coleman. “It shouldn’t just be about gossip.”
“If you want to look at where the issues, have people speak openly and honestly, and begin to peel it all back and look at where the issues are, well, they can’t speak openly and honestly if it’s just going out there into the community,” Coleman added. “They should have that opportunity.”
The alliance is led, in part, by Teresa Bingman, a Lansing attorney who is being paid $63,000 to help guide racial equity reforms in Lansing. She also moonlights as a consultant at Vanguard Public Affairs, a PR firm that promotes the city and has ties to the Schor’s 2017 campaign.
As part of the planning process, a series of sometimes poorly attended virtual meetings have gathered public feedback over the last few weeks. Many of the comments are familiar echoes of the Black Lives Matter movement to defund law enforcement and reinvest in social services.
Others — predominantly from the older, whiter crowd in Lansing — have voiced concerns over whether crime rates would increase as a result of reimagining public safety services. Officials have also been on call to answer questions from residents and outline budgetary procedures.
Two blocked from speaking
In the latest session last week, fired mayoral staffer Natasha Atkinson and Administrative Fire Chief Dave Odom — two of eight people suing Schor and the city for racial discrimination — also contend they were ignored during several rounds of public comment and feedback gathering.
Coleman, who facilitated the meeting, repeatedly skipped past both Odom and Atkinson, instead allowing other speakers to voice their opinions — sometimes two or three times. Coleman referred questions to City Attorney Jim Smiertka. Schor also declined to comment. Smiertka hasn’t returned calls.
“The fact is, if you want this input, claim you’re all about transparency and claim you want to listen to the community, then you should actually be listening to the community,” Atkinson said.
Betz also asserts the meetings have been more about influencing opinions than soliciting them.
Police Chief Daryl Green used the second input sessions as an opportunity to blast the concept of police divestment. He contended that crime would invariably increase if more officers were cut from the department’s already leaned-down staff. Besides, his department doesn’t have much room for cuts. Millions of dollars are tied up in retiree pensions, he emphasized.
The results of police divestment would create a “drastic and lasting impact on the safety of all people that visit, work and reside in the city of Lansing,” Green said. He also maintains even modest reductions would lead to a rise in sexual assault, human trafficking and homicides.
Schor (and the Lansing branch of the NAACP) later said that a significant portion of the city’s population would also have concerns about public safety in the absence of uniformed cops. Schor further added that he would have “tremendous concerns” related to police divestment.
Betz and other activists have since disputed Green’s take, insisting that cops don’t prevent crime, only investigate it. Many also believe that reforms must simultaneously coincide with police divestment in order to meaningfully reimagine public safety services in the city of Lansing.
“And why is the police chief even involved in these conversations? He can butt out,” Betz added. “He doesn’t even live in Lansing, for one, so I really don’t care about his perspective.”
Betz’ and Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar’s proposal to launch a committee and slowly transfer funds from the Lansing Police Department into other social services is currently stuck in the City Council’s newly formed Committee on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion awaiting a formal referral to the Committee of the Whole before it can eventually go before a vote of the full City Council.
The mayor’s alliance, Betz added, also likely won’t be too helpful as those plans are assembled. His focus, for now, will instead be on motivating other council members — namely Equity Committee Chairwoman Patricia Spitzley — to move quickly on the divestment proposal.
Spitzley, for her part, has emphasized the importance of doing research before taking action. Conversations surrounding the proposal are expected to continue at its next meeting this month.
“They’re slow-rolling this, and it’s frustrating,” Betz said. “That just means we’re probably going to have to jumpstart some external research outside of the City Council structure. We need to get some of this figured out, and I need to find a way to light a fire under some of our asses.”
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