Diversity or jobs—or both?

Council approves diversity plan despite criticism it will detract from job creation

The debate over Chico’s new Diversity Action Plan—which the City Council approved at its Tuesday (Sept. 20) meeting, but only after hearing some impassioned arguments against it—came down to cost and priorities.

At a time when the city is strapped for cash and the unemployment rate is at a historic high, opponents asked, does it make sense for the city to spend time and money on a feel-good program when it should be focusing on creating jobs?

The two women who criticized the plan were Stephanie Taber, a leader in the Chico Tea Party Patriots group, and Juanita Sumner, a conservative council gadfly who is often critical of its decisions. Two of the council members, Mark Sorensen and Bob Evans, shared some of their concerns.

The plan was a year in the making by an ad-hoc committee led by Mayor Ann Schwab. Its members included a wide and diverse range of Chicoans. Assistant City Manager John Rucker was the staff representative.

The committee was set up following several hate crimes in the city, Schwab said. Its mission was to outline and prioritize steps the city could take to foster inclusiveness within city government itself and, by extension, the wider community.

The group came up with a list of several dozen things that could be done and then prioritized them into three tiers according to priority, cost and staff capacity. Those that were high in value, low in cost and required little staff time—Tier 1—would be implemented in the first two years of the plan. Tier 2—moderate priority, higher cost, greater use of staff time—would be implemented in two to five years, and Tier 3—lowest priority, highest cost and greatest use of staff time—in five to 10 years.

The Tier 1 steps involve 15 fairly simple actions, such as providing an annual report about the diversity of the city to the council; adding diversity goals to board and commission work plans; and identifying a staff person to be the city’s “diversity coordinator.”

Tier 2 items are slightly more complex. They include: partnering with Chico State and Butte College in diversity training; sending job announcements “to places where they are seen by diverse groups”; and having “city booths listing services at various community events.”

Tier 3 steps include: translating documents, website and forms into Hmong and Spanish; utilizing Spanish-language TV/radio stations and publications; and providing mandatory cultural-diversity and nondiscrimination training to current staff and new hires.

Evans’ and Sorensen’s biggest concern was the possible cost of the plan. Schwab responded by saying, in effect, that none of the steps were cast in concrete and that the council would always have discretion in implementation.

“The cost will play out over time,” added Councilman Andy Holcombe, “just like fixing potholes.”

“This is the wrong time to impose new mandates on city staff,” Taber thundered from the lectern. “The council should be focused on jobs.” She said getting a paycheck does more for social tolerance and harmony than any government project can do.

Sumner, who said she’d attended some of the meetings of the diversity committee and knew it was “a well-intentioned plan,” nevertheless insisted that it was going to cost money and time that could be better spent on “working for jobs.”

But supporters of the plan, like peace activist Ali Sarsour, Michael Lo from the Hmong community, and Pastor Jim Peck, from the First Congregational Church, responded that one of the best ways to attract jobs and businesses to Chico was to foster its identity as a tolerant and welcoming community.

“Businesses appreciate diversity,” Peck said. “This plan shows the city of Chico is committed to diversity.”

London Long, president of the Chico State Associated Students, reported that the A.S. Board of Directors unanimously supported the plan “because they believe it will result in a more diverse city.”

It was quickly evident that all the council members except Evans and Sorensen strongly supported the DAP. The plan is “a great example of what it means to develop social equity in our city,” Councilwoman Mary Flynn said. “This is what we aspire to be. … I’m excited about it, and proud of it.”

“I’m proud too,” said Vice Mayor Jim Walker. “The cost is low, but the benefit is very high.”

Sorensen said he didn’t see how anyone could measure whether the plan was fostering a more diverse city. He also recommended that reporting on its implementation should go to a council committee—he recommended Internal Affairs—and not the Sustainability Task Force.

By this point the only question was how Sorensen would vote. And it turned out, he case the lone nay vote.

The city will begin implementing the plan immediately.