Juneau Assembly considers systemic racism review committee

The Juneau Assembly meets over Zoom on July 20, 2020 (Screenshot from Juneau Assembly Facebook)

The Juneau Assembly had its first hearing and substantive discussion on Monday on a pitch to create a systemic racism review committee.

Assembly members and the public expressed support for rooting out systemic racism. But there were also concerns that this committee would introduce a major hurdle to local policymaking. 

The advisory committee would be tasked with finding and offering fixes for systemic racism in proposed Assembly ordinances and resolutions. The idea comes from Assembly member Rob Edwardson. 

Rob Edwardson on Nov. 7, 2017. ( David Purdy/KTOO)

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 “A lot of the things that we’ve seen in the unrest around the country and around the community have a root cause, and that root cause is systemic racism. … But, rather than talking about it, I wanted to do something about it,” Edwardson said. 

He envisions a panel of experts with experience identifying unlawful discrimination or social justice inequities, and with deep, local tribal knowledge. 

Richard Peterson, president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, was one of several people to testify in support. He called it a first step in the right direction to create a community of inclusiveness and respect. 

“Our diversity is our strength, and this is an opportunity to let our neighbors know that we honor and respect them. Having a committee to focus on and ensure that CBJ works to erase systemic racism is groundbreaking,” Petersen said. 

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However, as proposed, the city attorney said the advisory committee’s review would be required before the Assembly could pass ordinances and resolutions. Mayor Beth Weldon said that was a deal-breaker for her, because it would give the committee power to stall Assembly action indefinitely. 

Weldon referenced the flurry of marathon meetings the Assembly held this year to pass ordinances to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic as potentially overwhelming. 

“If for some reason that workflow were interrupted, say in all this madness of this last few months that we had to work so fast, I couldn’t imagine a volunteer committee trying to keep pace with us,” she said. 

Assembly member Carole Triem said the committee’s focus may not cover where in local government systemic racism actually happens. 

“I would be worried we’d be missing some things if this committee is focused only on the part of the process where we are creating the law, and writing the text of the legislation, versus then how it gets implemented,” Triem said. 

A revised version of the systemic racism committee ordinance is headed to a joint meeting of the Assembly Human Resources Committee and Juneau Human Rights Commission on Aug. 3. 

Jeremy Hsieh is the deputy managing editor of the KTOO newsroom in Juneau. He’s a podcast fiend who’s worked in journalism since high school as a reporter, editor and television producer. He ran Gavel Alaska for 360 North from 2011 to 2016, and is big on experimenting with novel tools and mediums (including the occasional animated gif) to tell stories and demystify the news. Jeremy’s an East Coast transplant who moved to Juneau in 2008.

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