Mill Valley City Council Clashes With Equity Task Force

A brouhaha has erupted over the Mill Valley diversity, equity and inclusion staff report released last week at a city council meeting. Critics describe it as a public relations piece with no substance.

The staff report, presented by City Manager Alan Piombo, includes a work plan based on 30 recommendations made by the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Task Force. The purpose of the staff report’s work plan is to show how the city will implement some of the DEI Task Force recommendations.

During his presentation, Piombo said diversity, equity and inclusion are the city council’s No. 1 priority this year. Despite this assertion, the DEI Task Force maintains city government will not achieve racial equity with the staff report’s work plan, because it ignored the recommendations and road map laid out in a DEI Task Force report published on Dec. 7.

The now-disbanded, 22-person task force served as an advisory committee to the city council on racial equity issues. The task force’s  93-page DEI report offers specific recommendations for systemic change within the city government.

Since the DEI report came out, scores of residents and task force members have asked the city council to approve the two foundational recommendations: create a permanent DEI commission, and hire an experienced facilitator to lead the development of a comprehensive and strategic racial equity plan for city government.

Ultimately, the staff report declined to endorse either of the top recommendations made by the task force. The city council concurred.

According to task force member Tammy Edmonson, a retired attorney, the staff report and its work plan are flawed.

“The staff report tried to interpret the task force recommendations and then rejected all of them but one,” Edmonson said. “The one action item they committed to is another staff report in 60 days on the policing recommendations.”

“The rest of the staff report is not an action plan or a work plan,” Edmonson continues. “There are no objectives, no timelines, no commitment, no responsible parties. Essentially there is no plan.”

City Manager Alan Piombo acknowledges that the action item for police-related recommendations calls for an additional staff report; however, he disputes Edmonson’s assessment of the rest of the work plan.

“For the remaining items, the City will focus on efforts that are appropriately scaled and within City jurisdiction, such as affordable housing, human resources, recreation and library,” Piombo said in an email. “As many of these items needed additional direction, research and consideration, timelines are still being determined.”

This isn’t the only disagreement between the city and the task force. The relationship has been contentious since December. Perhaps it’s not surprising, considering the city’s newfound commitment to DEI only developed because the mayor made an insensitive comment last summer.

During the public comment portion of the city council meeting on June 1, a week after George Floyd’s death, a resident submitted an email asking what Mill Valley was doing to show that Black Lives Matter.

“It is our council policy that we do not take action on issues that are not of immediate local importance,” Mayor Sashi McEntee responded.

Protests and petitions followed, as did an apology from McEntee. The city council then made the decision in June to appoint a DEI Task Force and hire a facilitator to lead the group.

Although the facilitator helped the task force get organized, members were disappointed she was not specifically a DEI facilitator.

Nevertheless, the task force tackled the equity issue in Mill Valley, noting 87 percent of the city is white and Marin County is the most racially segregated county in the Bay Area. After months working in small groups, they compiled their determinations into the DEI report.

Based on the facilitator’s advice, the task force operated on its own; no city council members worked with the task force on its research or recommendations. This likely exacerbated the problems brewing between the task force and the city council.

When presenting the DEI report at the city council’s December meeting, the task force expected to have a dialogue with the council members about their recommendations. However, they claim their microphones were cut off after their presentation.

“We were never allowed an opportunity to have a conversation, publicly or privately, with the city council about the report,” chairperson Naima Dean said.

Though the task force worked for two months on their report and recommendations, McEntee says no discussion was ever promised.

“Staff prepared the Task Force to expect that the Council may ask questions but would not have a dialogue during the Council meeting, as is typical for all reports from all advisory committees,” McEntee said in an email.

Task force members then surmised the city council was not taking their recommendations seriously. They say the city council ignored their requests for direction after the report was submitted and delayed putting the DEI recommendations on the agenda for a future city council meeting.

To air their concerns, the task force communicated with the media and Mill Valley residents. On Jan. 12, the Marin Independent Journal printed a story about the city council’s “foot dragging.” Residents flooded the city council’s Zoom meetings, demanding they adopt the two primary recommendations in the DEI report.

After the conflict became public, task force members were invited to a meeting on Jan. 20 with the city’s DEI working group, which includes McEntee, city councilmember Tricia Ossa and Piombo. Believing they were finally going to discuss the DEI report, the task force prepared for the meeting.   

Instead, the meeting was turned over to the city’s outside counsel, who lectured them on the Brown Act, state legislation which ensures local government transparency by requiring that most business be conducted in public meetings. Members of the task force say the attorney raised his voice, declared they were in violation of the Brown Act and threatened criminal penalties to intimidate them. The mayor’s recollection is different.

“There were several interruptions and crosstalk by DEI Task Force members, and one member asked Attorney Lim to ‘get to the point,’” McEntee said in an email. “Attorney Lim quickly read to them the remaining language from the Brown Act that he was in the process of reading before he was interrupted.”

Either way, the task force, which has three lawyers among its members, concluded that as an ad hoc advisory committee, they were exempt from the Brown Act.

Despite the clashes, the city will continue with its work plan, which disregards the two primary recommendations proposed by the task force.

The task force believes the city has treated them in a condescending and disrespectful manner. Still, they’ll continue their mission for diversity, equity and inclusion in Mill Valley.

“This is our pivot moment,” Dean said. “The city government failed, but we’re going to build good community anyway. Maybe they’ll join us.”

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Nikki Silverstein
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