ENCINITAS — Over the past year, city leaders and a small group of handpicked residents have held meetings exploring proposals aimed at making the city’s government more equitable and inclusive, especially for women and minorities.
The Equity Committee on March 15 held the second of three planned meetings to draft a slate of recommendations to present to the Encinitas City Council later this year related to housing, public safety, diversity and inclusion.
At the meeting, the committee publicized a draft of its recommendations (to be finalized in April and sent before the City Council), which quickly drew sharp criticism from residents. Among some of the controversial proposals included a requirement of at least one woman or person of color on each city board or commission.
The committee also suggested the city issue an official proclamation committing to diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, and hiring a DEI leader who would oversee equity in staff trainings, city events, services and programs.
A separate item on the report recommended the city establish “equity criteria to be used in all City processes, programs, reports and require an ‘equity impact statement’ as part of staff reports to Council to understand equity impacts of proposed items.”
What exactly this proposal would entail has still to be “fleshed out,” according to Mayor Catherine Blakespear, who helped create the committee and attends meetings. However, Blakespear cautioned against making any summary judgments about the draft recommendations, as the final draft scheduled to be presented to the council next month could look significantly different from the current report.
According to Equity Committee member Mali Woods-Drake, the committee’s suggestions are in accordance with a broader effort to make Encinitas a place that is more congenial for marginalized groups, such as racial minorities, women and the LGBTQIA+ community.
“My understanding is that Encinitas, like many other cities, had a reckoning of sorts after the George Floyd murder, which is why this Equity Committee was formed in the first place,” Woods-Drake said. “Typically, people of color don’t feel that Encinitas is a welcoming community, so by creating that proclamation we’d be sending an intentional message out to the City of Encinitas. And then with the DEI leader, that makes it so that we can make sure that we’re looking at all areas of the city through a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens.”
Like Blakespear, Woods-Drake emphasized the recommendation in the report to hire at least one racial minority or one woman for each board and commission was still preliminary in nature, as the committee may elect to make this either a stipulation or a more aspirational goal for city government.
“We want to make sure that all voices in the community are being heard, taking a more intentional approach to recruitment practices, not necessarily requiring things but really striving and pushing to have a more diverse applicant pool,” Woods-Drake said.
Some community members were displeased by the committee’s report, and in particular, the section on hiring recommendations. Critics argued that such stipulations would unnecessarily force diversity into the city’s hiring practices without regard for actual qualification or expertise in a given position.
Natalie Settoon, an Encinitas resident active in local government who watched the Equity Committee’s meeting, said she’s worried these types of hiring requirements could result in less qualified applicants receiving city positions based purely on their race, sex, or other considerations.
“Without taking into consideration experience, which is a relevant component in an appointment to any committee or commission, are we willing to dismiss a highly qualified individual just to seat someone with fitting skin color or gender but without experience?” Settoon asked. “These appointments are not at-large, they are district specific so this could be a very realistic challenge.”3-15-22 Encinitas Equity Committee Meeting with Mayor (Blakespear) and Council person (Hinze) 2022_02_15 Draft Council recommendations
“These positions should be about qualifications, background, expertise not sex, race, sexual orientation, etc.,” said resident Jerry Sodomka, who regularly attends the committee’s meetings. “For the Planning Commission, for instance, you need someone qualified, somebody with expertise in that field, not just having somebody there because they’re a woman or whatever. You have to look at qualifications first.”
Susan Turney, a former Encinitas City Council candidate, agreed with Sodomka, pointing out city government positions hold an extremely high level of responsibility and should be undertaken with great care.
“I support diversity on our commissions,” Turney said. “However, I’m wary of the approach that will be taken to make this happen. I think people believe that applicants should be considered based on interest in serving and not picked randomly out of a crowd based on appearance. Some of the commissions, the Planning Commission, in particular, carry the responsibility to take on a steep learning curve and these appointments should be made with great care.”
However, Blakespear argued such criticisms are presumptive, as the committee’s recommendations will not necessarily be requirements but can also be merely advisory in nature.
“My thoughts are that this is still evolving, it’s an iterative process, there’s still discussion about whether these boards and commissions will be required to have a solo person of a gender or race on these bodies or whether this will be an aspirational statement, that’s still being discussed,” Blakespear told The Coast News. “We’re trying to get a sense of what the other communities do, the city commission right now, the city clerk, is doing outreach and research and trying to come up with the best proposals possible.”
Residents opposed to the recommendations also expressed that they were disappointed in the Equity Committee’s overall rhetoric and policy framing.
Settoon, Sodomka and Turney all said they were disturbed by what they characterized as inflammatory rhetoric used by committee members, specifically Woods-Drake and Marlon Taylor, on Tuesday and during previous committee meetings as well. Taylor did not respond to requests for comment.
“I am disappointed at the widespread attitude among Committee members that Encinitans are inherently racist and a pervasive position of contempt toward the average resident,” Turney said. “For example, one member [Robin Sales] remarked at a meeting, ‘We know what it really means when people say the words community character.’ The insinuation was that the words are spoken by racists.
“Another claimed that those advocating for more affordable housing are ‘racist,’ as these advocates ‘know’ it will never be built. Neither the mayor nor Councilmember Hinze ever corrected an ‘Us vs. Them’ attitude toward residents and it is hard to imagine successful outcomes from this committee.”
Sodomka expressed concern over the motives of the mayor and Woods-Drake in forming the Equity Committee, characterizing Woods-Drake as pushing a political ideology onto Encinitas residents without regard for policy implications.
“I think that this committee is intent on advancing the political interests and careers of those involved and not the interests of Encinitas residents,” Sodomka said.
Sodomka said he’s worried about Blakespear possibly appointing Woods-Drake as the city’s DEI leader. Specifically, Sodomka believes Woods-Drake is unfit to serve in any political capacity based on her antagonistic reputation online and in public statements.
“[Woods-Drake is] an outsider and she came in here with an agenda,” Sodomka said. “I think that the mayor is planning on putting her into that role [DEI leader]…but I mean she’s hostile towards residents, on Nextdoor and Facebook, she’s antagonistic. She’s said things in public that she’s had to take down. She’s just not the right candidate for that position.”
Woods-Drake released the following statement in response to The Coast News, declining to comment on the accusations made against herself personally but asserting the committee’s only goal was to fight for a more inclusive and diverse Encinitas, irrespective of any political ideology.
“There has been pushback by city residents about why the Encinitas Equity Committee was formed, some saying it was a politically inspired move, and that I was recruited by the Mayor to move to Encinitas for this purpose,” Woods-Drake wrote. “Countless cities across California, including but not limited to, Irvine, Sacramento, Santee, Santa Clara, have all created different forms of diversity and equity committee and task forces because they, like Encinitas’ leadership, recognized the long-overdue call to evolve our practices, city culture, and community engagement to be more inclusive and welcoming.”
Some residents spoke up in support of the Equity Committee. Joy Ruppert, a student at San Dieguito Academy, expressed support for the diversity hiring proposal, arguing that such a policy would send a strong message of inclusion to marginalized communities, particularly racial minorities, women, and the LGBTQIA community.
“I think that as a student of color,” Ruppert said. “I think it’s a beautiful proposal and I think it’s something that should explicitly be there. It should be a part of our moral code as a city, to make sure that the people representing our city government, our neighbors, our friends, that those people on the boards are coming from different intersecting identities, rather than just being composed all one race or one sex. It’s really important to ensure that the people serving us represent us in government, and for students like myself it’s important to see people who look like us be in these roles.”
Ruppert also defended the Equity Committee as a whole, claiming the group has done important work for marginalized groups and isn’t out to push any political agenda on residents.
“People may say that it’s forcing an agenda on the city but we’re really just trying to make the city more welcoming for people of color in Encinitas,” Ruppert said. “The reaction by some of these residents is very typical and it’s kind of a defensive thing but this group is just about trying to humanize one another, not guilting anyone or force feed anybody an agenda.”
CORRECTION: A quote was incorrectly attributed to Marlon Taylor regarding “community character.” The individual reportedly responsible for the comment was Robin Sales. We regret the error.