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Supervisors Change Diversity Statement

The Door County Board of Supervisors said by resolution in March that racism is a public-health crisis and resolved to do something about it. The supervisors affirmed that decision last week, but through a new resolution on diversity, equity and inclusion that takes a different approach to finding solutions. 

The new version brought the supervisors closer together, with fewer dissenting when it came to the final vote. The resolution that passed in March (10-9, with two absent) was titled, “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion – Racism Is a Public Health Crisis,” and Supervisor Vinni Chomeau introduced it. The one that passed last week (16-3, with two absent) acknowledges within the body of the document that racism is a public-health crisis, but it’s titled, “Door County’s Vision of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.” That version came out of the Administrative Committee in March and was amended last week.

A robust public-comment session preceded the supervisors’ reconsideration of the resolution, and the supervisors suspended their time-limit rule to give everyone a chance to speak. All but two of the 17 people who commented said the resolution must be retained. 

Among those speakers was only one person of color, Sturgeon Bay resident Damian Howard, who is also a Sturgeon Bay School District Board member. Howard said the resolution was a “great surprise” for him when it originally passed last month.

“We need to address diversity better, and we need to keep talking, and if we don’t, things will get worse,” he said. “It can be done. We don’t have to be afraid to talk about this. It is not an evil thing, and it’s not an evil movement.”

Howard and his Caucasian wife, Nicole, have four children. Nicole Howard also spoke, specifically about their 12-year-old daughter, who she said is subjected to racial slurs on social media and at school.

“She’s taking on this trauma at 12 years old,” Howard said. “This problem is real. It’s nothing new, but it’s time to see it.”

The new resolution acknowledges that racism is a public-health crisis and states that Door County “can and should play a role in seeking lasting solutions.” It also acknowledges that addressing disparities means building an inclusive culture for everyone, “regardless of age, disability, gender, gender identity and expression, race, nationality, ethnicity, parental status, religion, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation.” 

Supervisor Alexis Heim Peter said that uncovering the county’s systemic issues and blind spots pertaining to all the identity factors listed is important. She noted as an example that 48% of the supervisors are women, yet only 22% of the committee chairs are female. 

The two resolutions aligned on the issues and the statements about those issues. Where they differed was in the approach to identifying disparities and finding solutions. The March resolution would have required Door County administrators to develop a timeline in which to implement four distinct steps, such as creating a diversity committee, to improve health outcomes related to identity factors. 

Those action steps were seen as restrictive mandates by some, such as Supervisor Dan Austad.

“The idea when it came back to the Administrative Committee was we could take some action over time, but we’re not mandated to do it,” Austad said. 

Others saw those mandates as giving the document more teeth.

“The mandate forces us to act and do something and at least make an attempt at something,” said Supervisor Nissa Norton.

The new resolution commits the board to the support and advocacy of improved policies and ongoing training, and it resolves to have the Administrative Committee make quarterly progress reports to the county board.

“I definitely disagree there are not mandates in here and that we won’t come back with something,” said Supervisor Dave Lienau. “We will.” 

The March resolution returned to the board last week for reconsideration at the request of three supervisors who had voted for it. Several supervisors said Tuesday the issue deserved more discussion at the committee level. 

“All 21 of us understand it’s a problem, but it’s a sensitive subject that has to be gone over,” said Supervisor Joel Gunnlaugsson. 

Corporation Counsel Grant Thomas said the supervisors may reconsider a resolution they’d previously approved as long as it’s done at the next meeting by someone on the prevailing side. Supervisor Roy Englebert, who had voted affirmatively for Chomeau’s version last month, made the official motion on the floor to return it for discussion. Supervisor Todd Thayse then moved to replace that version of the resolution with the one that came from the Administrative Committee in March. Supervisor and Vice Chair Susan Kohout then introduced an amendment to that version. During the course of Tuesday’s meeting, several other changes were made to arrive at the final document.

Kohout said her version of the resolution was an attempt to reach middle ground. Most notably, she returned the word “equity,” which the Administrative Committee had excised. That had been done, Supervisor and Administrative Committee member Ken Fisher explained, because they believed the word “equity” was equated to “socialism” when it was used in a governmental context.

Kohout said the word “equity” meant equality, and she had experienced its opposite. As a young woman in the 1970s, she was teaching and having children but could not have been approved for a loan or a credit card without a man as a cosigner. Discrimination in the lending industry didn’t end until President Gerald Ford signed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in October 1974. 

One of the final votes on the issue taken during the board’s April 20 meeting was an attempt to shift the diversity work from the Administrative Committee to the Health and Human Services Committee. That attempt failed, 10-9, with two absent.

Those who opted for that change said it was more practical for the Administrative Committee to have it, but they questioned the members’ ability to deal with issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.

“The Administrative Committee can more easily direct it, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to understand the work going on,” said Supervisor Dave Enigl.

The three who cast the dissenting votes in the final resolution were Supervisor Bob Bultman, who said he preferred last month’s version; Fisher, who said he couldn’t get past the word “equity”; and Supervisor Elizabeth Gauger, who did not respond to a request for the reason for her dissenting vote. 

Lienau said Monday that the Wisconsin Counties Association advises counties that adopt diversity resolutions to examine the inequities unique to their particular counties. He said the Administrative Committee intended to get to that work quickly.

“The first meeting will be deciding what direction we should go,” Lienau said. “This is not something that will be over in a meeting or two. This will be a long-term issue for some period of time.”