CommUNITY Alliance proposal passes first hurdle

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published October 16, 2020


STERLING HEIGHTS — When it came to a plan promising unity, the Sterling Heights City Council voted in one accord.

At an Oct. 6 meeting, the City Council unanimously voted in support of introducing an ordinance to create a CommUNITY Alliance. The vote comes after the council in August rejected 5-2 a proposal to turn its existing Ethnic Community Committee into a Diversity and Inclusion Commission.

At the time, some council members said they wanted to keep the ethnic committee separate or were uncertain what a diversity commission would actually do. Only Mayor Michael Taylor and Councilman Michael Radtke voted in favor of the original diversity commission idea, and Taylor asked city administrators to return with a new proposal in time for October.

So during the Oct. 6 meeting, Community Relations Director Melanie Davis gave a presentation about the idea. She said the city administrators took a fresh look at the idea and sought to give the proposed board a theme of unity, hence the new proposed name. She said it is designed to represent everyone.

“What we ultimately took away from that meeting is that there is a real desire to bring together all voices and all experiences that make up our city and to break down barriers that might separate the community,” she said.

“So we did create a branding for this proposed commission that features the word ‘unity’ … as a part of the word ‘community,’ and we thought that that was really important.”

Under the new plan, the Ethnic Community Committee would still be allowed to exist as its own organization. Meanwhile, the proposed seven-member CommUNITY Alliance would have to convene at least nine times a year, though those meetings wouldn’t be bound to the Open Meetings Act. It also would have to report to the City Council at least once annually.

Davis said the alliance will analyze the city’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

“We would urge them at that point to have those tough but candid conversations, to really tackle the tough issues,” she said.

Then the alliance would offer recommendations and advice to the council and city manager about diversity, inclusion and human relations. The proposed group would be in charge of making an action plan, Davis said.

The alliance would also work with civic and business leaders, community organizers, local experts, and more to “develop programming and identify potential funding sources to move towards meeting or exceeding objectives set forth in the action plan,” a city document said.

“The mission of the CommUNITY Alliance is to unify Sterling Heights and make the bonds of living together strong,” the document added.

“Together, we can break through the barriers of prejudice, bias and divisiveness to realize our vision of a vibrant, inclusive community with an exceptional quality of life. This will not be a reality until every resident feels welcome, accepted, respected and safe.”

According to Davis, the application process for possible alliance commissioners would ask them to submit essays about their interest and background. Commission members won’t be paid for serving.

During public comment, some audience members questioned how the group’s mission would be enforced.

“I’m just wondering how do we preach unity when we have council members sitting up there to throw a temper tantrum at the last meeting and just yell out ‘bigot’ to some resident?” resident Charles Jefferson said. “How can we expect you guys to enforce these rules?”

 Some other critics said they believe that the concept of equity would segue to reparations, or that the board would exclude Christianity while including LGBT and Islamic beliefs. And resident Jackie Ryan urged the council to “quit bringing in socialism and all (these) communistic ideas, because that’s what it is.”

When it was time for the council members to speak, Councilwoman Barbara Ziarko said she listened to different perspectives on the issue, and she understood the proposal as a way to try to be a better community.

“I know right now we are in such a divided nation that it scares me that we can’t find common ground,” she said.

“There’s a lot of fear in this room,” Councilwoman Maria Schmidt added. “What I’m hearing is that we’re going to be protecting one group over another. No. We want to learn how to understand different groups, different religions. ... It’s not about excluding Christians. No one ever said anything about excluding Christians.”

Councilman Henry Yanez thanked the city administration for putting more thought and effort into the proposal “and coming back with a much better product.”

Councilman Michael Radtke, who originally proposed a diversity and inclusion commission in February, voted to introduce the proposal. But he criticized the alliance plan as “watered down” from what he originally had in mind.

He wanted to know why the commission would only have seven members, and he believes that the setup timeline will take too long.

“It doesn’t go far enough, and just from the voices in this room earlier, I think the residents at home will see the same thing,” Radtke said. “The problem that it’s meant to address was right here in this room addressing the council, and it’s so obvious.”

He also said he doesn’t understand the reason behind the organization’s name change.

“If the purpose of the CommUNITY Alliance is not diversity, equity and inclusion, then I’d like to know what is the purpose,” he said. “Because it sounds like a consultant kind of dressed it up in a little suit to make it more palatable.”

The CommUNITY Alliance proposal still requires a second successful council vote for adoption, scheduled for Oct. 20. Should the alliance formally pass, the city hopes to recruit commissioners in November and December and make formal appointments in January. Then the alliance would work on an action plan draft throughout 2021 and present in January 2022. Implementation is scheduled for the following month, city officials said.

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