ENCINITAS — After a mix of feedback and pushback from residents, the city’s Equity Committee has released a final draft of recommendations the group believes will make city government more equitable and inclusive, especially for women and minorities.
The committee unveiled the final draft report at its April 19 meeting that will be presented to the Encinitas City Council in May, covering a whole host of equity-related topics including housing, safety, and community engagement.
By far the most controversial section of the report, however, dealt with the city’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Among other things, the committee’s final draft recommends hiring a DEI leader to oversee government bodies, establishing a set of equity criteria to be utilized in all city processes, programs, and reports, and issuing a city proclamation on a public commitment to DEI.
Most of these proposals were virtually identical to a draft of the recommendations released last month.
The committee’s final version notably backed off a more controversial proposal released in the earlier draft, which recommended the city require at least one woman or person of color on each board or commission.
In place of this stipulation, the final draft instead merely recommends the city adopt an aspirational statement about equitable representation in city government, while interviewing at least one woman or minority person for available positions.
According to Mali Woods-Drake, founder of Encinitas4Equality and a member of the Equity Committee, the removal of this hiring stipulation was not due to public pressure but was instead a recognition on the committee’s part of a need to set a more realistic expectations.
“By making this a recommendation instead of a requirement, we’re recognizing the realities of the demographics in Encinitas,” Woods-Drake said. “When you have just .8% of residents who are Black and 12% Hispanic in Encinitas, that makes it really hard to find people interested in that role, so to make it a requirement makes it really difficult when you have such a small group of those people to begin with.”
“Instead what we’re doing is with this aspirational [goal] we’re creating more intentionality around who we’re inviting to have a seat at the table. One of goals is to create a more welcoming Encinitas, and the hope is to find more applicants of diversity who are interested in civic engagement, but the work has to be there from city first to create that safe and welcoming environment for applicants.”
In order to encourage more diversity on government bodies, the committee’s final draft also recommends offering a need-based stipend to commission members. Since commission positions are generally volunteer-based, the Equity Committee found that the lack of compensation tends to be an added barrier for women and persons of color in taking on these roles, according to Councilmember Kellie Hinze, who worked closely with the committee in producing the recommendations.
“What the committee recognized is that there are systemic challenges that women and people of color face,” Hinze said. “Women, for instance, tend to do a lot of elder and child care work and that makes it difficult to get away to commission meetings for that long, so recognizing that these are volunteer roles and that if we want more diverse membership those groups might need to overcome such challenges, we made the recommendation to consider need-based stipends for commissioners.”
Since its creation in May 2021, the Equity Committee has faced heavy criticism from residents. In March, the preliminary draft of the recommendations was widely scrutinized, with the report’s proposals on diversity coming under fire in particular.
Despite the removal of the hiring requirement from the final draft, many residents interviewed by The Coast News said that they still felt as though the recommendations were politically motivated and not in the best interests of Encinitas.
Specifically, several residents expressed skepticism about a proposal in the report to create a contact list of non-profits to distribute city government positions to.
Natalie Settoon, an Encinitas resident active in local government who watched the Equity Committee’s meeting, said she’s worried that this stipulation could create bias and favoritism when it comes to appointing municipal officials.
“Persons interested in government service should demonstrate community initiative on their own accord. Do we really want a candidate with nominal ambition and resourcefulness? This is bad policy,” Settoon said.
“Local nonprofits aren’t curing cancer or feeding refugees. They’re advancing political agendas, favored by key players on the Equity Committee, but in general are not favored by our community at large. It is highly improper for city government to list vacancies specifically to nonprofits and give them a special seat at the table. Simply put, this creates bias.”
Jed Stuber agreed, adding that he thinks that this recommendation could create potential conflicts of interest.
“This [proposal] creates a scenario where we allow nonprofits to basically run the town, and I don’t think that’s good, Stuber said. “As a person in this community if I were to see that enacted, it would make me less likely to want to pursue such a position.
Stuber also noted it was a “huge conflict” especially since a member of the Equity Committee is an active board member with a local nonprofit, referring to Woods-Drake, who sits on the board of Encinitas4Equality, a local organization dedicated to advancing social justice and promoting the rights and interests of disadvantaged communities.
Woods-Drake dismissed the idea that the report’s adoption would lead to favoritism for residents who happen to be connected to a nonprofit. The goal of the provision, she clarified, was simply to utilize nonprofits to raise awareness about open municipal roles in the community.
“My stance is that there are many local nonprofits connected with community members, that there’s a lot of volunteers who are interested in specific kinds of work and this would be an avenue for the city to get the word out to constituents, residents who otherwise may not be aware of these commissions,” Woods-Drake said. “For me, it’s about how do we get the word out to people who typically wouldn’t be following this stuff, and this isn’t about prioritizing people who are connected to nonprofits but it’s rather just another avenue to inform residents in the community about the opportunities that are available.”
Other community members took issue with the rhetoric used in the report and by committee members.
“Encinitas simply does not suffer from systemic racism…the recommendations are nothing more than a power play by groups such as the Equity Committee, who insinuate their way into government by latching onto fake woke politicians like Catherine Blakespear,” said longtime resident Steven Golden. “Adding unneeded layers of administration and more money taken from the budget all for a plan rife with reverse discrimination and quotas.”
“This proposal creates more costs and more layers of bureaucracy based around a singular political view in a city that doesn’t even have adequate public safety personnel,” said Alex Riley, a former council candidate.
Local business owner Gary Stuber said he hopes the City Council rejects the committee’s recommendations, as he says these proposals are unneeded and unwanted by residents.
“The entire purpose of the Equity Committee is to create problems that don’t exist, so certain people can get paid for doing nothing but complain about problems that don’t exist and never have in Encinitas,” Gary Stuber said.
The Equity Committee is entirely composed of volunteers. The body, which was created in May 2021, is set to be disbanded after its one-year term of service comes up next month.
Marlon Taylor, an Equity Committee member, said that the criticisms of the report have largely been misguided and not factually based. For instance, he shot down the idea that the report’s hiring proposals would lead to unqualified individuals being selected to city commissions or boards.
“The idea with this [recommendation] is simply to cast an extremely wide net, wider than we typically do because a lot of people don’t even know that these positions exist,” Taylor said. “I don’t think it’s a stretch for us to say that one woman or one person of color should be on these commissions.
“Now, do you put them on there for the sake of putting them on there? No…I really don’t think it’s the case that people will apply for positions that they’re not qualified for, and I think that the notion that someone will be brought on solely because of gender or race is probably a bit far-fetched.”
Woods-Drake called the public backlash faced by the committee a “disappointing” reflection of Encinitas.
“Yeah, it’s disappointing to recognize the amount of work that needs to be done in this community,” Woods-Drake. “It’s been disappointing to realize that Encinitas is not as idyllic and perfect as I thought it was. Having people sitting on these committees doing this work despite the blowback that we get at a personal level, it’s an honor and a privilege that I can do this work.
“My hope is that when people see the recommendations for what they are, they’ll realize that this bogeyman they’ve created about the recommendations aren’t true.”
Hinze defended the Equity Committee, calling its work an asset to the city, and extolling the group for giving Encinitas an opportunity to be reflective about how it can improve its commitment to DEI.
“I think that social justice issues are always really challenging to talk about, it’s always called into question by those who don’t experience certain injustices as problems in their own lives, but just because it’s not a problem to certain members of the community doesn’t mean it’s not a problem to others,” Hinze said. “Last year was a time of racial justice and a reckoning about our ability to be reflective, for the city to look at itself and think of how we might be perpetuating some of these social inequities.”
Like Woods-Drake, Hinze also expressed that the fierce criticisms faced by the committee have been largely misplaced.
“I think that the criticism that was most difficult this past year was all of the personal attacks on the members of the committee,” Hinze said. “These folks are volunteers and dedicate their personal time to these problems, and the majority of complaints about the Equity Committee that we’ve received have just been personal attacks on people that they disagree with.”
Hinze added that while she isn’t aware of how her colleagues will vote if the recommendations came to a council vote, she personally plans on voting to approve the finalized draft at the council’s meeting in May.
UPDATE: This article has been updated to include additional comments from Mali Woods-Drake.