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Thursday, Aug. 11, 2005 09:49 pm

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City’s race-relations task force is disbanded

The Mayor’s Task Force on Race Relations has been disbanded after six years of service. All task force members have been invited to join a new subcommittee of the Community Relations Commission.

With the city of Springfield defending itself against two federal race discrimination lawsuits, and the civil service commission embroiled in controversy for rejecting the top African-American firefighter applicant, disbanding the one group charged with advising city officials on racial issues may not seem like the logical thing to do. But Sandy Robinson, director of the city’s Office of Community Relations, says the step is necessary to give the group more authority.

“It was actually my idea,” says Robinson, who characterizes the move as a “reorganization” rather than a dissolution. “I went to the mayor and said I think this will solve several problems. And he agreed.”

The 15-member task force was created in 1999 by then-mayor Karen Hasara to carry out ideas generated by her popular and successful Study Circles program. Instead, it turned into an advisory team to help city officials handle or even avoid racial conflict.

“The charge of the task force was to head off hot-button issues before they got out of control,” says Baker Siddiquee, an associate professor of economics at University of Illinois at Springfield and a member of the team.

Task force members have long complained that city officials weren’t paying attention to their recommendations. Early on, several members resigned in protest of the group’s powerlessness. In a December 2002 article, Robert Blackwell, another founding member of the group, told Illinois Times a schism had formed between people who became “so fed-up and frustrated that they quit, and people who became so fed-up and frustrated that they stayed.”

The problems apparently increased when new administrations took over — both in the city and in the task force itself. Task force members say Hasara seemed to value their input more than Mayor Tim Davlin has — that she attended their meetings and sought their advice.

“When there was something relating to race, she would ask the chair for input,” Siddiquee says.

Davlin, by contrast, has seemed less interested. “From the beginning [of his term], we thought that there was a lack of interest on the part of this administration to support the task force,” Siddiquee says.

The first hint of trouble came in Davlin’s initial meeting with the group, when he refused to endorse the goal of recruiting enough African-American police and firefighters to make up 15 percent of the departments, to match the general population.

“He said no, I don’t go by that, that was the previous administration. So we sensed some lack of commitment there,” Siddiquee says. “But we thought maybe he’s got some other solution to the problem. The members thought let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Soon, though, they discovered that most of their requests for information or for meetings with key officials were being rebuffed. Their plea for release of basic data on the race and gender of city employees, for example, met with such resistance from Davlin’s administration, it became a lead news story for weeks (the city eventually released the data, though in a vague format).

When the task force asked Todd Renfrow, director of City Water, Light and Power, to meet with them, he never did. “We sent him a letter asking for his responses, but never got him to agree to come to the meeting or respond to our letters,” Siddiquee says.

Meanwhile, the task force was struggling with internal problems. In an attempt to formalize the group’s structure, members spent several meetings discussing term limits, Robert’s Rules of Order, how many people constituted a quorum, “and other administrative headaches,” Robinson says. Once the new guidelines were adopted, several meetings had to be cancelled for lack of attendance. Even chairman Siddiquee had scheduling conflicts. And then the chair-elect, Robert Blackwell, had to resign due to a new job that involved extensive travel.

Siddiquee describes a self-perpetuating problem in which task force members, frustrated by having no real power, lost interest and resigned from the group. Davlin would then leave the vacancy unfilled. Eventually, the group dwindled to just eight – too few people to fill the subcommittees, and so small any absence meant there wasn’t a quorum.

“In the end, it was almost like death by strangulation,” Siddiquee says.

Robinson says transforming the group into a subcommittee of the Community Relations Commission will solve all the procedural problems and give the group the capacity to open an official investigation if need be. After consulting with each task force member, he took the suggestion to Davlin, who approved.

Not all the task force members plan to join the new subcommittee. Victor Juarez, a founding member, declined to “merge,” because the commission does not focus solely on race relations. “I think it’s too diluted to be effective,” he says.

But Robinson believes the revised structure will attract new blood. Some current commission members have asked to be placed on the race relations subcommittee, he says.

The move has some repercussions on the committee tasked with recruiting minority police officers and firefighters. The race relations task force chairman — most recently, Siddiquee — had an automatic seat on that team. Last week, Siddiquee received a letter from Davlin notifying him that he was no longer needed for minority recruitment.

“I’m very disappointed with the leadership here,” Siddiquee says.

However, Juarez has accepted an appointment to the minority recruiting team. “I couldn’t say no,” he says. “The fire chief we’re dealing with [Bob Bartnick] is an excellent person and has shown commitment. The police chief [Don Kliment] has come to meetings and is open and interested.”

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