Symbolism or substance?

Council moves forward with diversity plan despite criticism

Back in mid-April, when Amro Jayousi was running for president of the Associated Students at Chico State, some of his campaign signs were defaced on campus. One of them was spray-painted with the word “Arab.” His face was X-ed out on two others.

About a week later, then-A.S. President Joseph Igbineweka was the victim of a bloody knife attack in what police described as a “hate crime.” That incident gained national media attention, tarnishing, in the eyes of some, Chico’s reputation.

At the May 4 Chico City Council meeting, Mayor Ann Schwab asked the council to consider developing a “diversity action plan.” And this week that is what the council did, but not without some diverse opinions offered by both supporters and opponents.

The mayor explained that the idea was to reach out to segments of the population that are often overlooked by encouraging certain members of the community to serve on the city’s boards and commissions.

She told of a visiting physician who was applying for a residency at the Enloe Medical Center. But after walking through the town and visiting the campus, he decided, she said, based on comments he’d heard, that he wanted no part of Chico.

Schwab said city government needs to be “more welcoming and encourage full dialogue” to make Chico a more comfortable environment for people from across the cultural spectrum.

To get the ball rolling, she said, an ad hoc committee made up of 10 community members and a city staffer should be formed. The Human Resources Commission (HRC), she noted, is about to be disbanded and thus can’t do the job.

Vice Mayor Tom Nickell said that, while he supported the idea, he questioned the wisdom of using staff time to create and implement such a plan while the city is suffering financially.

“Can we do this without any cost to the city?” he asked. “Can we do this without allocating 20 to 30 hours of staff time? I’d rather give that $2,500, or whatever it is, to the food bank.”

Schwab said disbanding the HRC would more than make up for the cost.

Councilwoman Mary Flynn said she supported the idea. “Social sustainability is often the last piece of the three-legged stool to get our attention,” she said, referring to the three key elements—the others are the environment and the economy—on which the city’s new general plan is based.

Councilman Andy Holcombe also voiced his support and said the effort should be funded by the city.

When the issue was opened up to public comment, diversity raised its head. Two people spoke in favor and two against.

Samad Najjar, a Chico business owner who lives in Magalia, said, “Money should not be an issue when it comes to community involvement. It’s going to take neighbor talking to neighbor, culture talking to culture. … Get off the money issue. Everybody is suffering.”

Michael Reilley, another business owner and a regular at council meetings, quipped, “Political correctness, once again.” He said the answer for better community representation is to reform the council so that its members are elected from specific districts.

Gayle Hutchinson, dean of Chico State’s College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, said it was not an issue of political correctness. “It’s an issue of diversity,” she said. “This includes people with disabilities and folks who are underrepresented. We need more inclusion; we need to improve tolerance. … I look forward to it.”

But Sue Hubbard, a member of the Chico chapter of the Tea Party, took a different view. She said she opposed the idea during a time of recession, calling the proposed plan “frivolous; all symbolism and no substance. You can’t force diversity.

“This,” she reminded the council, “is our money, not your money.”

She warned the council members up for reelection—Flynn, Nickell and Scott Gruendl, who was absent—that their votes on this matter would be remembered in November.

After the public-comment period closed, Councilman Jim Walker said that, while there is a cost attached, “At the same time it comes with a value.”

Councilman Larry Wahl balked at the idea and said the notions of diversity and inclusion are already mentioned in the city’s missions-and-values statement. “We have better things to do,” he said.

Holcombe told Wahl the plan provides a way to put the city’s missions and values into effect, making them more than just statements.

Assistant City Manager John Rucker, who was originally tasked to look into creating a committee and plan, told the council there were unknown costs involved, but added, “There are ways to do this in a fiscally responsible way.” Chico State, he said, is also in the process of forming a diversity plan, and the city could work with the university.

In the end the council voted 4-2 to move forward, with Wahl and Nickell casting the no votes. Now the mayor, who said she welcomed the extra work, begins the task of recruiting the 10-member committee.