Concerns over the county’s proposed racial equity bill have led to proposed changes from residents and advocacy groups at two public hearings on Tuesday.
Council President Nancy Navarro, who introduced the bill in September, has repeatedly emphasized that changes will be considered in committee work sessions as the bill moves through the legislative process. But that didn’t stop more than two dozen residents from sharing their thoughts on specific portions of the legislation, from the number of seats on a proposed advisory committee to the difficulties of ending racial bias through new laws.
“The greatest challenge is not the things we can do differently,” said County Executive Marc Elrich, who attended the second public hearing to endorse the bill. “The biggest problem is when a person of color sits across from a white person and has to deal with assumptions — things that are never said or never measured. Those are persisting racial disparities, and they’re not easy to fix with legislation.”
The sweeping bill would establish a countywide racial equity and social justice program, requiring the county to establish an executive Office of Racial Equity and a separate Racial Equity and Social Justice Advisory Committee with nine voting members.
Under the legislation, all new bills would have to include a racial equity impact statement — similar to the financial impact statements currently required for proposed legislation — and each county department would have to draft a plan for reducing racial inequality.
Resident concerns mainly hewed to the composition of the advisory committee and future funding for the massive bill. The draft legislation currently calls for six seats dedicated to members from county departments, including Montgomery County Public Schools, the Montgomery County Police Department, and the County Council.
The bill tasks the county executive with appointing members of the committee, subject to council approval.
But advocacy groups expressed concerns over the transparency and inclusiveness of the committee. Multiple people, including Max Socol — a Silver Spring resident who spoke as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America — said the group should include 15 members, nine of whom are community members rather than county officials.
Multiple advocacy groups, including Jews United for Justice, also endorsed a public nominating process for committee members and providing compensation so that income would not be a barrier to entry.
Currently, the bill specifically stipulates that committee members must receive no compensation.
Community concerns often underscored the lack of funding included in the current legislation, despite the apparent costs of implementing the bill. Julio Murillo, a government relations specialist for the immigrant advocacy group CASA, said the legislation would be significantly weakened if the county never funded the proposed changes.
“I want to highlight that the Racial Equity Office will need resources,” he said during the first public hearing. “It’s going to need full funding and support staff, and I’d like to see that included in the bill.”
Typically, the council doesn’t include funding recommendations in proposed legislation because it’s unenforceable, Navarro said. Current council members can’t compel future councils, or the county executive, to honor those recommendations in future budgets.
But occasionally, legislators take the unusual step of recommending funding to underscore its importance to a bill — as they did in recent legislation that expanded the responsibilities of the county’s inspector general. Navarro said she would consider adding the same recommendations to the racial equity bill.
During his comments, Elrich also said that he had increased funding for staff training on racial equity in his upcoming budget proposal for fiscal year 2021.
Other concerns revolved around the section of the bill that requires racial impact statements for all future legislation. Murillo said they should be given the same weight as financial impact statements, while other residents worried that there was no requirement for lawmakers to consider the statements when making decisions on a bill.
“Yes, the bills have to include information on whether they’d have a positive or negative effect on racial equity,” said community advocate Brandy Brooks, a member of the Montgomery County Racial Equity Network who ran for an at-large council seat in the last election. “But there’s no language that council members can’t pass a bill that has a negative equity impact.”
“I’d like to see that added to the legislation,” she added at the first public hearing.