The Montpelier City Council abandoned its usual budgeting process at its Nov. 20 meeting and unanimously approved $10,000 for a social justice project only vaguely outlined for council members.
During the council’s Wednesday regular meeting, members of the Social and Economic Justice Advisory Committee came before the councilors to request money for a “social and economic justice assessment project.” The project, only generally described at the meeting, aims to assess social equity, diversity and justice issues in city government.
Shaina Kasper, a member of the advisory committee, began her presentation by reminding councilors that the committee was established “with an important, ambitious, and far-reaching charge of tackling systemic oppression and working towards greater equity and justice for all residents.”
She explained that the group wanted to take a proactive role in gathering and evaluating information on the “perceptions, experiences, and recommendations of a wide-range of Montpelier residents in regard to the impact of the city government’s policies and practices on economic, social, and racial justice.”
The advisory committee, Kasper added, is lacking in-house expertise in facilitating community discussions, and the group needs $10,000 to work with social justice issue experts and gather data. If the project lasts three years, additional funds may be requested.
Ashley Hill, the councilor from District 3, said she supported allocating the funds for the project.
“Paying attention to even language is so critical as we figure out how we are going to identify as a community and how we are going to move forward, and to me, this is absolutely where city money must be invested,” she said.
Glen Coburn Hutcheson, the District 3 councilor, asked if other communities in Vermont have done an assessment, and was told that similar projects have been tried in Winooski and Hardwick.
Kasper said city officials, school administrators and parents came together for community forums in Winooski, and that social justice issues were worth the investment.
“By having months of community-wide discussions … we heard just glowing reviews about what the process was like, and just to be able to come together and have these really honest and frank conversations about these really tough issues under a third-party facilitation,” Kasper said.
After hearing a rough outline of the project communicated by members of the Social and Economic Justice Advisory Committee, city councilors discussed reviewing the request for potential funding during the formal budget process in January.
“A vote to include it in the budget right now would probably be premature — we probably should have that as a discussion together with the budget,” Montpelier Mayor Anne Watson said.
But councilor Dona Bate, District 1, suggested foregoing the budget process and approving the $10,000 on the spot.
“We could make a motion now, and we could commit ourselves outside of the whole process,” she said. “ … I think we need this or it’s not going to happen, and it needs to start sooner than later.”
Bate then made a motion to approve the money during the meeting, which was seconded, and the council proceeded to vote.
“I guess I’m nervous about, you know, having a budget decision outside of the budget process,” Mayor Watson said, “but I get it, this is very important, so, fair enough. All in favor please say aye.”
The council voted unanimously in favor of funding the social and economic justice assessment project.
“OK, thank you, and thank you for your work, and that will be in the budget,” Watson said following the vote.
Lauren Hierl, District 1 city councilor, expressed her support for the work of the Social and Economic Justice Advisory Committee.
“I’m so glad that the council seems to agree with this moving forward so that we can bring in experts who can really help us to do what’s right and do it well for our community and make sure that we hear from the people that don’t tend to show up at the council meetings,” she said.