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Op-Ed: Four Elk Grove City Councilmembers Failing In Their Commitment To Diversity

Op-Ed: Four Elk Grove City Councilmembers Failing In Their Commitment To Diversity

*This article reflects the opinions of the Op-Ed author Amar Shergill and not the opinions of Elk Grove Tribune or its staff.*

It’s time for all four Elk Grove councilmembers, Councilmembers Hume, Detrick, Nguyen and Suen, to stop being an obstacle to progress. We need By-District elections that give equal opportunity to women and people of  color and we need a Planning Commission that represents the diversity of the population it serves.

The Elk Grove City Council recently voted to begin hearings that may or may not result in the City moving to By-District elections. The By-District system, via legislation authored by Assemblymember Jim Cooper, is favored in California because it creates small districts that elect their own councilmembers. Small districts, as opposed to city-wide elections, require less money and are more easily accessible to all candidates, especially women and people of color. Our current system of city-wide voting has proven to be the playground of large out-of-town corporations funding hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates that must respond to corporate interests before local concerns.

The Council’s decision to start hearings was prompted by a lawsuit that was about to be filed against the City of Elk Grove for civil rights violations under the California Voters Rights Act. The lawsuit was set to prove that the current election system makes it more difficult for qualified candidates of color to be elected due to racially polarized voting in some areas of the city. County of Sacramento data from a number of elections indicates that those areas of the city tend to vote less for candidates of color. It is a positive development that the Council may finally be close to setting aside their dismissive attitude regarding racially polarized voting. Despite the advocacy of Mayor Steve Ly along with a diverse coalition of community organizations, the four city-wide elected councilmembers have refused to consider By-District voting for many years. Without the pending lawsuit and the possibility of a multi-million-dollar verdict, it is unlikely the Council would have held hearings despite many other California cities already opting to make the positive change.

However, the overall issue of institutional bias will not evaporate with this electoral reform. The Elk Grove City Council has repeatedly rejected qualified women and people of color that applied for the Elk Grove Planning Commission. For more than a year, the Commission has included only one woman and lacked any representation for people of color. It is simply unacceptable that the City is marketing itself as one of the most diverse cities in the nation, telling its residents that they value this diversity, and then refusing to represent this diversity on the Planning Commission.

During the August 8, 2019 Elk Grove City Council Meeting, I asked the four councilmembers to consider expanding the Planning Commission; they did not respond. I then wrote to four planning commissioners suggesting they diversify their panel; they took no action. Particularly problematic was the silence of Planning Commissioner Kevin Spease. As a longtime Elk Grove resident and a former political candidate, Spease is intimately acquainted with the diversity of our community and should know better than to be silent on the exclusion of residents from such an important decision-making body.

On September 5, 2019, the Chair of the Planning Commission, Mackenzie Weizer, indicated in a discussion with other Commissioners that she was willing to discuss expanding the commission from five to seven members while making diversity a priority. Mayor Ly repeated this message on September 11, 2019 during a City Council meeting, directing City staff to recommend options on diversifying the planning commission. The remaining members of the Council have either been silent or denied any concerns regarding a planning commission that lacks diversity.

Although our councilmembers are quick to highlight the impressive diversity of Elk Grove, Councilmembers Hume, Detrick, Nguyen and Suen are stuck in the past when asked to act on these issues. They dragged their heels on By-District elections in order to protect their own seats and are now ignoring the need to diversify representation on the Planning Commission. Many highly-qualified women and people of color have applied only to be rejected. It’s embarrassing for a City like ours to represent itself in this way and it is a disservice to our residents.

The time has come for equality of opportunity for the people of Elk Grove. The four city councilmembers that have been opposing the Mayor should move immediately to ensure 1) that By-District elections are instituted for the 2020 elections and 2) that the Planning Commission transitions from five to seven members with defined term limits.

Amar Shergill
Elk Grove Father of Three
Executive Board Member, California Democratic Party

*This article reflects the opinions of the Op-Ed author Amar Shergill and not the opinions of Elk Grove Tribune or its staff.*

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