Meenu Singh, of Sterling Heights, sells her items at the Sterling Heights Cultural Exchange in the Sterling Heights Community Center earlier this year. The city’s Ethnic Community Committee is responsible for the Cultural Exchange.

Meenu Singh, of Sterling Heights, sells her items at the Sterling Heights Cultural Exchange in the Sterling Heights Community Center earlier this year. The city’s Ethnic Community Committee is responsible for the Cultural Exchange.

File photo by Heather Gardner

City delays vote on proposed diversity commission

Some council members want to keep ethnic committee separate

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published July 24, 2020


STERLING HEIGHTS — A majority of the Sterling Heights City Council recently decided to wait a few weeks before voting on whether to move a proposed diversity and inclusion commission forward.

At a July 21 meeting, the council voted 5-2 to postpone the measure until the second meeting in August instead of voting to introduce the measure. Mayor Pro Tem Liz Sierawski, Councilman Henry Yanez and Councilwomen Deanna Koski, Barbara Ziarko and Maria Schmidt voted yes. Mayor Michael Taylor and Councilman Michael Radtke voted no.

The proposal as it stands would transform the city’s Ethnic Community Committee into a Diversity and Inclusion Commission, adding seats, powers and responsibilities.

In 1990, the city created the Ethnic Community Issues Advisory Committee, which is known today as the Ethnic Community Committee. Today the committee manages, among other things, the annual Cultural Exchange and the Diversity Distinction Awards.

During the meeting, Community Relations Director Melanie Davis said the ethnic committee was designed to improve communication and understanding across ethnic, socioeconomic and age groups. She said the idea for revising it into a diversity and inclusion commission came from Radtke at a Feb. 4 council meeting.

If the ethnic committee transforms, city officials said, it would become a full-fledged advisory commission that would explore inclusion beyond ethnicity and culture. For instance, officials said it could research other communities’ best practices and look at ways to make the city more inclusive to people in the LGBT community and other minority or underrepresented groups, including people with disabilities.

“The Commission will monitor municipal programs and Board/Commission topics for their impact on diversity, inclusion and human relations in the City,” according to meeting packet materials.

As the proposal stands, the current 11 ethnic committee members would migrate to the new commission, which will have 15 seats and at least one meeting per month.

The city said meetings won’t be under the Open Meeting Act’s purview. Still, the proposal would make the diversity commission have at least four public meetings a year.

At the meeting, Assistant City Attorney Don DeNault Jr. said the city’s research into diversity committees nationwide showed that their mission statements strive to “foster mutual understanding and respect among all groups within the city.” Council packet meeting materials mentioned Lansing and Livonia as Michigan examples with similar commissions.

“The idea of a diversity and inclusion commission, remarkably, as we dug into this, (is) not as common as you might think yet in 2020,” DeNault said.

During public comment, Ethnic Community Committee member Susan Kattula said she has served on that committee for around 15 years. She said that when word got out about changing the panel’s name, some people began wondering if it was because a perception arose that it wasn’t inclusive or diverse.

“I think … to me, by changing the name, I felt like (that said) our committee wasn’t inclusive, and we are very inclusive,” she said.

In response, Radtke said he doesn’t think a Diversity and Inclusion Commission diminishes the ethnic committee, but upgrades and expands it.

“The one thing I would add is not just diversity and inclusion — but diversity, equity and inclusion — because we all have a role to play here in Sterling Heights to make sure we have a more fair and equal society,” he said.

Some council members were on board with a new diversity commission, but they wanted it to be its own panel and not replace the Ethnic Community Committee. Koski said she was on the City Council when the committee was originally formed in 1990. She said its role was to work with new immigrants, many of whom didn’t speak English.

“I believe that they should be kept separate because I love the ethnic festival; I love the diversity dinner. I love what that committee has done, and I don’t want to see it changed,” Koski said.

Schmidt said the ethnic committee is a “phenomenal group of people,” adding that she’d hate to see some of their focus “go by the wayside.” She also believes that the diversity commission should have a fresh start.

“It’s not a fresh start if you bring in already-aligned people with, you know, relationships,” she said. “There’s a lot of unknowns about this commission, and we’re being asked to vote on it. So I think we need more information on the nuts and bolts of this commission, not just what it is going to be addressing.”

Some council members talked about postponing the vote. But Taylor said he wasn’t interested in postponing. He said he didn’t see the need for two different groups with similar goals, and neither did he want two different boards that are “at odds with each other.”

“It sort of goes against the spirit, in my opinion, of what we’re trying to do here, to say, ‘Well, we don’t want to be part of any group that’s going to be focusing on LGBT, or we don’t want to be in part of any group that’s focusing on African-American issues, or we don’t want to be part of a group that’s focusing on, you know, inclusiveness for people with disabilities,’” he said.

“So to me, I think that’s the policy that I want to put forward — that we’re going to have a commission that takes all of those differences and celebrates all of them and works to have more inclusion, equity, better understanding of different cultures, races, religions, skin colors, backgrounds, you name it — everything.”

Yanez called the proposal “probably one of the most important things that this council could have done in a long time.” But he said he was disappointed that the proposal came to the council in its current form. He said he wants a more complete ordinance, and he wants to get things right. That’s why he put forth the motion to postpone.

“We don’t even know what their mission statement is or what their goals and objectives are,” he said, later adding, “I don’t agree that we need to vote on this tonight. I think the city needs to come back with a more complete ordinance, more thought-out ordinance, presented to us.”

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