Decatur mayor bristles at questions about diversity plan, consultant ducks questionsMattice Haynes helps lead the discussion during the Community Action Planning Cafe Conversation at Ebster Gym on Saturday. Photo: Jonathan Phillips
A plan to make Decatur a more diverse and welcoming place will be up for consideration at the Dec. 7 City Commission meeting.
The taxpayers paid $109,000 for that plan. But when Decaturish attempted to ask basic questions about it at the commission’s Nov. 16 meeting, like when a full draft will be available and how the city will solicit comments from people without access to the internet, we received pushback. Mattice Haynes, the city’s consultant responsible for producing the plan, walked away when we attempted to interview her.
Mayor Jim Baskett became angry when we pressed for information about when the full draft would be available for review and comment.
Baskett said the most important part of the plan – a list of action steps revealed during a meeting on Nov. 12 – already is available for review and comment.
“Most of it’s in the action steps, and a little bit of the rest of it that will fill it all out will come in after we get public comment,” Baskett said. He said those action items will be part of the full plan, which hasn’t been made public. The list came from input at community meetings organized under the auspices of the city’s Better Together campaign.
We asked the mayor when the public would have the opportunity to comment on the full plan, once it is released.
“We have public comment two or three times at every meeting,” Baskett said.
The city’s website, Decaturnext.com, has announced a “Community Comment Period” on the action items. The official comment period on the 71 action items will begin on Nov. 17 and end on Nov. 30.
Decaturish obtained a draft outline of what the final plan will look like. It will contain more information than the action items, including a plan timeline, and information about oversight. Here is the draft of that outline:
We asked Baskett about whether the public would have an opportunity to comment on the full draft before the commission accepts it. And what about people who don’t use the internet like senior citizens and people with limited means? How will the city consider those voices in its plan to preserve and increase diversity in the city?
“We’ve had two meetings that were open to the public,” Baskett said. “That was a long time for public comment.”
We noted the draft plan wasn’t available before those meetings. Decaturish asked if the public is going to be able to see and comment on it.
“The basic part of the plan is action steps, and what we did the other night at the meeting was we went through those action steps to see what people placed priority on,” Baskett said.
We told the mayor he wasn’t answering the question.
“I’m done with you,” Baskett said, walking away.
Our questioning continued. We asked again if the public will have an opportunity to comment on the plan before the commission accepts it.
“Not till it’s finished,” Baskett said.
We wanted to know how people who don’t have access to the internet are going to be able to comment on the full draft.
“They come out here and comment on it,” Baskett said. “They could’ve come to the meeting the other night and commented on it. They could’ve come to the one Saturday a few weeks ago and commented on it.”
We asked the mayor why he was being defensive about our questions.
“Because I’m tired of this,” Baskett said. “You said three times in your articles that the city never presented an action plan at that meeting.”
The city didn’t present the plan at the meeting. Haynes acknowledged this when she told the audience they were receiving the “core” of the plan, but not the full draft described in the plan outline.
Baskett later apologized for his reaction to the questions. Baskett said that the City Commission accepting the report does not mean the commission will act on every recommendation in it.
“We would be deciding at that point (Dec. 7) that the work we have commissioned has been done, and that we will take from this the suggestions that have been made,” Baskett said. “We will look at it then and say where does the city need to take steps? Where do we need to get partners to take steps? How do we proceed as a city moving forward to be more welcoming of everybody?”
We asked Baskett if he thought the plan would be accepted by commissioners on Dec. 7.
“My expectation is we will be presented a report on Dec. 7 for us to take and do with whatever,” Baskett said.
The interview with Haynes was considerably shorter. As Haynes left a commission work session where she gave a presentation about what will eventually go into the plan, we caught up with her and asked her if she had a moment to answer some questions.
“I’m going home to my daughter,” she said. “I don’t have time for your questions.”
We asked if we could ask her questions as she was leaving city hall. Haynes ignored us and walked away. We asked if there was a time we could call for an interview. She did not respond.
It was an unusual reaction, given that sharing information and reading the news are among the action items presented during the Nov. 12 meeting.
One of the action items suggests the city, “Establish an ongoing Better Together column in the Focus and other local media outlets to keep community members informed of progress on the Community Action Plan, Strategic Plan, and other initiatives and ways in which they can support them.”
Another item in the plan encourages residents to, “Attend public meetings, read relevant publications, and/or utilize resources available through the City website to learn about local issues and the City’s decision-making process.”
As Haynes avoided talking to us, she asked Lyn Menne, the Assistant City Manager, to field our questions. But Menne hasn’t overseen this particular project. She directed questions to Linda Harris, Assistant Director of Community and Economic Development for the city. Harris serves as the city’s spokesperson now that Casie Yoder has gone to work in the private sector.
Harris said no draft of the plan currently exists, though that’s what the city said would be presented when it announced the Nov. 12 meeting. We asked when people could see the plan and comment on it.
“What they can comment on right now is the heart of it, which is the action items,” Harris said.
We asked why the public wouldn’t have a chance to comment on the whole plan before the commission considers accepting it.
“They will be able to when we see it,” she said.
We asked when the public will be able to see it.
“I don’t know,” Harris said. “You’ll have it by Dec. 7.”
We asked about people who don’t have access to the internet. Does the city have a plan for soliciting feedback from people who don’t have access to the internet? People like that live in this community don’t they?
“Yes, they do,” Harris said.
We asked if the city has a plan for reaching out to them and getting their input.
Harris paused for several seconds before answering. “Yes, but I don’t know how we’re going to do it. I mean, to your point, we can send out an email.”
We asked why Mattice Haynes is dodging questions from the press. Is that how the public is going to be treated? If we try to ask questions about it, we’re going to get stonewalled?
“That is not the way Decatur does things,” Harris said. “I can’t speak for Mattice.”
We noted Decatur hired Haynes. We asked why she is not answering questions from the press about the taxpayer-funded Community Action Plan.
“She should,” Harris said.
The City Manager
City Manager Peggy Merriss said the public had the opportunity to comment on the plan. She noted that during the Nov. 12 meeting, the audience exchanged note cards containing one of the 71 proposed action items. Attendees were asked to give the action item a ranking. But there was no opportunity during the meeting for the public to speak during about the action items. The full list of action items wasn’t available until the end of that meeting.
“The document itself is a combination of things that have been available,” Merriss said. “Just like we’ve done in every plan – the strategic plan, our community transportation plans – all of that wasn’t available until the final document was provided. So we’re doing it consistent with every other plan, so I suspect it will be (available) sometime around Dec. 7.”
Isn’t the diversity discussion more important than a transportation plan?
“No,” Merriss said. ” … Our most important plan is our strategic plan. This is a feeder into that strategic plan. Our community transportation plan was a feeder into the strategic plan. Our historic preservation plans are a feeder. They’re very different topics that have their own various levels of importance to different people, but they’re all important. I don’t think there’s a level of importance of one that outweighs a level of importance of the other. So we’re being very consistent with the process we have taken over the last 20 years.”
During Monday’s work session, commissioners had some questions about the plan and the public’s expectations surrounding it.
Commissioner Patti Garrett said that people told her they were expecting more of an opportunity to comment on the plan during the Nov. 12 meeting.
“I think they were thinking they’d have the opportunity to comment on these on the meeting on Thursday,” Garrett told Haynes. “I just want to make sure we’ll have it available.”
Garrett also said she’d received comments about the format of that meeting, which included games like “Social Bingo” that encouraged people to introduce themselves to people they didn’t know.
“I had a response from people that Thursday night we didn’t get down to the business of (why) we were there for a fairly long period of time which really compressed that component,” Garrett said. “That’s one of the things I’m really looking for as this report is compiled and brought forward to us.”
Commissioner Bill Bolling also alluded to constituents who were critical of the meeting.
“Thursday night some people had expectations,” he said. ” … Do you feel like that what people expected is what they’re going to get?”
“That’s a hard thing for me personally to answer … because I don’t know exactly what people are expecting,” Haynes replied.
The action plan has been almost two years in the making, sparked by allegations of racial profiling by police officers that were raised back in January of 2014. Former School Board member Don Denard said he had been profiled, and other black residents and visitors soon came forward with their own stories.
Denard spoke favorably of the draft during the Nov. 16 work session. Commissioners did not allow public comment at that work session, but did hear comments from several of the people involved in crafting the document.
“I am a person who values language,” Denard said. “The community has gotten the right language into the draft Community Action Plan.”
Read more: Here is the slideshow and action items presented at the Nov. 12 meeting, obtained via Decaturnext.com