Council rejects diversity commission plan

New proposal on topic expected in October

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published September 3, 2020


STERLING HEIGHTS — A proposal to turn the Ethnic Community Committee into a diversity and inclusion commission was recently rejected in Sterling Heights, but city officials expect more discussion about diversity policies in October.

During the Aug. 18 Sterling Heights City Council meeting, the council voted 5-2 to reject the proposal. Mayor Michael Taylor and Councilman Michael Radtke were the two yes votes.

The rejected proposal would’ve turned the city’s Ethnic Community Committee — whose history extends back to 1990 — into a Diversity and Inclusion Commission. The new commission would’ve increased the body’s number of seats from 11 to 15, and it would’ve had more authority to advise the city on issues. The group would’ve met at least once a month and also would’ve had four public meetings a year.

City officials believe that its scope would’ve gone beyond ethnicity and culture and into issues dealing with race, LGBT, religion and disabilities.

The City Council initially discussed the proposal at its July 21 meeting but postponed the matter after multiple council members said they wanted more details or hesitated at replacing the ethnic committee. At that meeting, the council voted 5-2 to postpone the proposal along the same blocs as in the vote that rejected it.

When the council took up the matter again Aug. 18, a few public commenters spoke. Resident Charles Jefferson asked for more specifics. Other commenters warned that identity politics could divide the community.

Resident Jackie Ryan questioned whether the diversity commission would be constitutional and criticized its proposed meetings for not being subject to the Open Meetings Act.

“When you start doing inclusion, you’re doing exclusion. And I’d like to know who’s included and who’s excluded,” Ryan said. “We already have in our Constitution that everyone is created equally. … We don’t need to be dividing everything out here, which … is a way to cause discrimination.”

When it was time for the City Council to speak, Councilman Henry Yanez said he didn’t want to vote against inclusion and diversity. But he said he wanted a more complete ordinance that more clearly elaborated on its goals and objectives.

“I think a lot of the concerns that were expressed here tonight are frankly unfounded,” he said. “But I can’t push back on that because, again, I really don’t know what this commission is going to do.”

When asked to speak, Assistant City Attorney Don DeNault said the diversity commission would be “perfectly constitutional,” adding that it would give the council guidance about “how to diversify, how to include people, how to make people feel included as part of the community.”

DeNault also defended the proposed committee not being subject to the Open Meetings Act, adding that many city boards aren’t subject to it. He added that sometimes a group needs the space to roll up their sleeves and brainstorm “without necessarily being subject to rigid rules of procedure or rigid public participation requirements.”

Councilwoman Barbara Ziarko said the city needed to do more research, adding that “there’s very little comparatives to find because this hasn’t been done locally.”

Councilwoman Maria Schmidt said she wants the ethnic committee and a diversity panel to be separate bodies because she believes that they would have different missions.

Councilwoman Deanna Koski said she wants the ethnic committee to be promoted to a commission but kept separate from a diversity commission. She too wants more research about what the proposed diversity commission’s mission statement would be and wants the city to bring it back up at the January 2021 strategic planning meeting. She also suggested giving the proposed group the name of “Human Community Relations.”

Mayor Pro Tem Liz Sierawski said that while she supports diversity and inclusion, she proposed calling any new panel the “Equality and Justice Committee,” since it’s something a lot of people would support.

“It’s not specific to race; it’s not specific to ethnicity; it’s not specific to gender identity or gender equality,” she said. “So I think that that might be a partial solution to all of this.”

Councilman Michael Radtke, who originally brought up the idea in February, said he didn’t think that his idea was controversial. He opposed having “two separate-but-equal committees” and said Eastpointe and Jackson have panels like the one he is proposing.

“If we want to move into the 21st century, we need to start doing things and thinking about things a little bit different,” Radtke said.

Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor said he wants Sterling Heights to be more welcoming to people of all ethnicities, races, religions, sexual orientations and abilities. He added that an advisory commission can “help point out our blind spots.”

“I mean, it doesn’t take a genius to see that the seven of us share something in common, OK? And so we are all able-bodied; we are all white, OK? We are all, I think, fairly well off. I don’t think any of us are impoverished,” he said. “So we need to have those voices advising us about ways that we can better deliver services to our community.”

Before the council voted to reject the proposal as it stood, Taylor asked city administrators to research and come up with a different proposal related to equality, inclusion and justice by October.

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