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Covington council has honest discussion about diversity
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The City of Covington is taking steps to increase diversity in both its work force and list of contractors, following a candid discussion at the city council's strategic planning retreat, spurred by Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams' concerns.

The city will post job openings and project bids in non-traditional locations, including community centers, churches and post-secondary schools, according to City Manager Steve Horton who discussed the matter with Personnel Director Ronnie Cowan after Monday's session.

Williams said Monday that the city, simply put, lacks diversity, and she feels it's the city's responsibility to seek that diversity out. The majority of the council felt the city was doing what it should, but members agreed more could always be done.

Council members braved the topic of diversity, including whether there was any implicit age, racial, gender or cultural discrimination and openly shared their perceptions about diversity within the city's hiring and project bidding practices.

Prejudice in the Percentages?
Williams said while the city's demographics have changed significantly over the years, the make up of city personnel hasn't.

She said the city achieved "City of Ethics" distinction but questioned whether a lack of diversity fit with that label. She felt the city should be doing more to reach out to diverse candidates for both employment and project contracts.

"You may not want to make it your responsibility to reach out, but yes, it is our responsibility, because the faces at the city don't represent the demographics," she said. "There's a stigma attached to the city's hiring."

Councilman Mike Whatley said from his perspective the bid process in particular is supposed to be immune to discrimination, because companies have to meet certain qualifications and enter sealed bids.

"Do institutions have the responsibility to go out and knock on doors?...No, it's not our responsibility," Whatley said. "We have to follow rules...we can't do things to sway the diversity of our (job hiring practices) and bidding process."

He also said he didn't think it was the city's role to provide job training or education; the candidates need to seek that out on their own.

Councilman Keith Dalton said because he worked hard to form his own business, he expects others to work hard to get where they want to be.

"I'm a self-made person, and that's how I look at the world. Pull your boots up and go to work," Dalton said.

Councilwoman Ocie Franklin said as a former single mother, she knows what it's like when a citizen is struggling just to pay the bills.

"I say to all of us, sometimes we need to be able to step outside (our experiences). We represent all the citizens," Franklin said.

Mayor Kim Carter said she understood Williams' concern, but didn't necessarily agree that the council was the proper body to make certain changes. She said the federal government has predominantly been the one to conduct social programs, and the city's charter legally limits what the city can do.
Carter continued that her perception was that diversity and racial issues are a big driver in Williams' life.

"I would have hoped we'd come light years since the civil rights movement," Carter said. "We as a city government can't be the safety net for people."

When Williams asked Carter and the other council members if they believed that many of her actions were driven by a belief in the existence of discrimination, the majority said there did seem to be a pattern.

Whatley said it comes up more often then he would hope, but understood it was her perception, while Dalton said it honestly hurt him to be accused of having those motivations.

"I don't have that in my heart. I don't look at those factors," he said. "I'm younger, so I didn't experience the whole civil rights movement."

Councilwoman Janet Goodman said she felt Williams brought the issue up more than was warranted.

"I was in the civil rights movement. I know Steve, Kim and Ronnie (Cowan) break their necks (to be fair). They are color blind...That's how I see it," Goodman said.

Franklin did not comment. Horton said he takes discrimination very seriously and if any employee was discriminatory they would be fired immediately.

Facilitator Frank Foster praised Williams for being brave enough to ask the thoughts of her fellow council members and praised the council for being brave enough to give honest answers.

Williams said the conversation turned out exactly like she knew it would.

"Maybe I am guilty, but our perceptions are based on our experiences," she said. "I came on board ... to represent those who are least represented. There are people who will receive benefits because of their culture. I'm not saying it's on purpose all the time, but human nature tends to go with the familiar."

Increasing Awareness
Although bids on projects greater than $20,000 must be sealed, contracts under that amount are more informally bid out. The city has a list of contractors in different specialties and will call as many of those companies as possible when a smaller project comes up. Although these are advertised in the newspaper and on the public cable channels, Horton acknowledged those media don't reach everyone.

"We can break from the traditional mold to recruit...and cast a wider net," Horton said.

He suggested the city develop a check list to inform people about how to get on the city's vendor list.

Once the city puts this and other practices into place, Whatley said he wants to make sure the community realizes that Covington has gone the extra, extra mile, regardless of whether the city employment demographics change. Williams agreed that if the city makes these efforts it will have done what it can legally.

Williams is also planning to meet with Horton and others to understand the bidding process and relay the information to minority business owners.