Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners unanimously adopts equity policy

Wednesday, September 5, 2018 - 10:19pm

Washtenaw County Commissioner Felicia Brabec speaks at a public hearing for a racial equity ordinance at the Washtenaw County Administration Building Wednesday night.

Washtenaw County Commissioner Felicia Brabec speaks at a public hearing for a racial equity ordinance at the Washtenaw County Administration Building Wednesday night. Buy this photo
Ruchita Iyer/Daily

The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to adopt the Washtenaw County Equity Policy at its board meeting Wednesday night, establishing a Racial Equity Office to address issues of inequity in the county and calling for all aspects of the county government to implement strategies that will result in “equitable outcomes for all residents.”

Washtenaw County ranked 81 out of 83 Michigan counties in economic inequality, according to this year’s County Health ratings. Median income for Black households is nearly half the median income of white households according to a 2015 report by Opportunity Washtenaw. The same report shows that if there had been no racial gaps in income in 2014, the local GDP would have been $1.79 billion higher.

Felicia Brabec, D-District 4, chair of ways and means, thanked the county residents “who are holding us accountable to do better … in our community.”

“I know it’s only a first step, but it’s been a really long, long time coming,” Brabec said. “We get to focus on the implementation now.”

Conan Smith, D-District 9, emphasized the need to properly implement the policy.

“Someone said from the audience earlier this evening that we should not be so much debating the passage of this but debating how it gets implemented best,” Smith said, calling racial inequity an “emerging problem that we had to grapple with more constructively, more intentionally.”

The bill calls for racial equity training for all commissioners and members of county boards, commissions and committees. Departments will be required to create a racial equity plan, but plans for evaluation and metrics have yet to be determined. 

Smith said he believes the policy would help confront the challenge of inequity in the county.

“By adopting this office this evening by identifying a staffing structure and a regular commitment to including this in a four-year budget, so that it is not a flash in the pan — that is going to lay a foundation that I believe we have badly needed for a long time,” Smith said. “Whoever ends up in this office certainly has their work cut out for them.”

The Racial Equity Office will lead the effort to tackle inequity, reporting directly to County Administrator Gregory Dill. During the public hearing prior to the board’s vote, Trevor Bechtel, a pastor at Shalom Community Church in Ann Arbor, said the Racial Equity Office would institutionalize the work to reduce gaps in resources.

“An office allows the people working on this policy to address questions of racial equity from inside the system, so it becomes a systematic conversation,” Bechtel said. “Part of addressing a systematic question like racism is positioning the structure and creating the institution that can have that conversation.”

Margy Long, director of Washtenaw Success by 6, which works to combat the opportunity gap faced by children of color and low-income children in elementary school, spoke up during a public comment period, encouraging the commissioners to reach out to community members who are affected by racism and social injustice as they begin enacting the equity policy.  

“If we hope to make an impact with this policy and this office, I hope that it goes much beyond just talking to professionals, and you really reach out to the people in the community,” Long said.