2019 | Government

County Wants an Office for Addressing Racial and Economic Disparities

County Council developing ‘racial equity’ policy, gathering better data

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Nancy Navarro

Dan Schere

For weeks, Montgomery County leaders have stressed the need for a “racial equity” policy in everything from government services to education. At a Wednesday news conference announcing the rollout of a countywide initiative, County Council President Nancy Navarro struggled when asked to define specific areas with the greatest need.

“It depends on the issue, but I think we all know there are issues in the down county, so you can just name it … Long Branch to Wheaton, all the way to Aspen Hill … all of those areas. The East County, the Briggs Chaney area, all the way up to Germantown, Gaithersburg and Montgomery Village,” Navarro said. “We have challenges throughout the county and we have opportunities throughout the county, so we have the numbers. We know where we need to focus.”

Navarro said county officials have been working to address racial, gender and other socioeconomic disparities for a long time, but there hasn’t been a data-driven action plan to tackle the issues.

“Everybody has been working to address these disparities. What we haven’t had is a framework, so that we are able to track whether we are making a difference or not, and every decision we make is looked at from that perspective,” she said.

Navarro was joined by County Executive Marc Elrich, Board of Education President Shebra Evans, Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson and the other members of the council in Silver Spring to launch the initiative.

The policy will mandate that the County Council and county executive coordinate with other county agencies, such as the school system and park and planning department, when making policy changes that affect demographics.

“Once their budget plans come to us and their master plans come to us, we’re gonna be looking at it through that lens,” Navarro said.

Elrich said he plans to create an office dedicated to equity in his administration, which will also address gender, LGBTQ and other disparities that exist in various communities.

“We’re fleshing it out because we don’t have a director yet, so that process is ongoing, but the idea is that we want somebody under me who is responsible for the carrying out [the equity policy] in all of the programs in the departments,” he said.

Elrich said the key for the equity officer will be to ensure that women, people of color and other minority groups are being hired in the highest positions in county government. A recent example, he said, was his effort to find a woman to replace police Chief Tom Manger, who is to retire next month.

“When Tom announced he was leaving, I said ‘OK, what women around the country are available for police chief?’ So in this entire country there are 12 female police chiefs of major departments and seven of them are minority? That’s in the entire United States of 300 million people. So it’s a problem in terms of who’s available at the levels you need them,” he said.

Since taking office in December, one cabinet head and two of assistant chief administrative officers Elrich has appointed are people of color. Additionally, two of his cabinet head appointments are women. He has yet to name five other permanent cabinet heads, which require County Council approval.

The County Council has gradually become more diverse over the years, with two black and two Latino members elected last year to the nine-member council as well as an LGBTQ member. Yet the number of women elected to council has decreased to one.

According to data from the Census Bureau, 42.9 percent of Montgomery County’s population was black, Hispanic or another minority in 2018. Those groups comprised about 35 percent of the population in the 2010 census and 29 percent in 2000.

The council is undertaking initiatives to improve economic and racial disparities within the county, such as an announcement last week by council member Evan Glass that he has legislation to prohibit the county from inquiring about a job candidate’s salary history. Glass said measure is intended to address a gender pay gap that exists.

Glass and council member Tom Hucker also emphasized the need to expand access to public transit in the Eastern part of the county — something Glass said disproportionately affects low-income residents in areas of the county with less frequent bus service.

“When you realize that the largest indicator of one’s economic status is their access transportation, and if you miss your bus or the bus is late, that’s dollars in your pocket. And our low-income communities here in Montgomery County have twice the level of reliability and dependence on our public transportation system,” Glass said.

Navarro said that having data will lead to better solutions to fix disparities. At a recent news conference, she pointed to the four-mile Veirs Mill Road corridor between Rockville and Wheaton where three-quarters of residents are minority and half are foreign-born. Families in this part of the county make roughly three-fifths of the typical median income and rely heavily on public transit.

The county’s master plan for the corridor aims to reduce the number of pedestrian fatalities along the route by adding features such as sidewalks, pedestrian crossings and bike lanes. Navarro said the Veirs Mill corridor plan is a good example of a land-use policy that takes demographic data into account when making decisions.

“It begins with the mandate of having to examine data any time we want to propose initiatives for funding for land-use decisions. We need to take a very good look at who we’re affecting,” she said.

Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com