Searching for diversity: Minority leaders urge change on Longview boards, commissions to reflect population
By Sherry Koonce firstname.lastname@example.org
Oct. 27, 2012 at 11 p.m.
From 2000 to 2010, the racial makeup of Longview changed - noticeably. During the decade, the city's white majority shrank from 70 percent to 56 percent as minority populations swelled.
But a survey of the civic leaders serving on Longview's decision-making agencies, boards and commissions found a racial diversity more reminiscent of the 2000 population.
After minority leaders recently asked the Longview City Council to make an effort to diversify the racial makeup of standing committees and boards, the News-Journal examined a broad sample of city boards, commissions and committees. The survey looked at race, gender and age of the members. The data was not immediately available because the city does not track the demographics of its appointed representatives.
Because such boards, committees and commissions are fluid - most change annually - the results of the survey reflect a snapshot in time.
But the survey taken this month shows overwhelmingly that the people serving on the city's decision-making panels are predominantly white, middle-aged men, although most boards have at least one woman and one minority representative.
David Wood, a Longview engineer who serves as chairman of the city's Planning and Zoning Commission, is among the eight white, middle-age men on that nine-member board. The planning commission recommends zoning changes, subdivision plats, long and short-range planning and policy development relating to city development to the City Council. To be a member, one must live in the city limits of Longview.
"I truly believe we are beyond race and gender," Wood said. "I really think, around guys my age in responsible positions, we are past all that."
Tell that to Branden Johnson, president of the Longview Chapter of the NAACP and a member of the city's Unity and Diversity Board.
"It is time for us to get real about what we are doing. Real East Texas is changing into Real East Texas diversity," Johnson said. "If we don't get on board and accept people not from Real East Texas, we are going to drown."
Johnson was among a group that appeared at the Sept. 27 City Council meeting to call for more diversity, specifically on the Longview Economic Development Corp. board of directors. Their calls, he said, fell on deaf ears, prompting a second plea for diversity less than a month later.
<strong>LEDCO is unique</strong>
The call for diversity on the LEDCO board was prompted, in part, by openings to replace retiring longtime members Bob Metzler and James Wilcox, who chose not to continue serving because of time constraints.
Unlike other city boards, whose members are selected by the city's Appointments Committee then approved by council vote, LEDCO's five voting members recommend their own slate, which - until recently - had always been accepted without question.
But on Oct. 9, the city's Appointments Committee, comprised of council members Kasha Williams and Wayne Frost, did not approve LEDCO's slate of board candidates. Instead, they agreed to recommend Andrea Mayo, a black woman who had served before on the board, to replace LEDCO pick Ed Banos, who recently had been terminated as executive director of Good Shepherd Medical Center.
Saying they thought Banos would soon find employment elsewhere and leave Longview, and given the call for more diversity, Williams and Frost said replacing Banos with a member of a minority group would send a positive message.
To Williams' surprise, Frost changed his mind and his vote in the full council meeting later that week. He said he had reconsidered and decided not to second guess the LEDCO board's recommendation.
By a vote of 3-3 with Mayor Jay Dean breaking the tie, the council turned thumbs down on the Appointments Committee's recommendation of Mayo. Instead, it upheld LEDCO's original slate of candidates that included Banos, the other existing board members and new appointments Julie Fowler, a white woman, and Paul Stephenson, a white man.
Johnson said he was not surprised, nor was he happy about the council's action.
"Whenever it is a 3-3 split, Jay Dean always goes to the side opposing diversity, justice and equality," Johnson said. "It would have been a good faith effort. Absolutely they missed it, but again, I'm not surprised."
At Thursday's meeting of the City Council, Johnson chastised Frost for changing his stance.
"It saddens me to stand before you again," Johnson told the council at its regular meeting this past week. "Mr. Frost, you were for diversity, then you rejected it. Why did you change your mind?"
Vik Verma, a member of Longview's Unity and Diversity Committee, voiced similar concerns at the meeting.
"We thought we had made incremental progress two weeks ago, but feel like the rug is pulled out from underneath us," Verma said.
In answer, Dean said the LEDCO board, which is one of the most important in the city, is empanelled based on experience and capability - not politics.
"That board deserves to have good, qualified candidates to lend their expertise," Dean said. LEDCO vets its own candidates to the board, he said.
"If Ms. Williams wanted to put Ms. Mayo back on the board after she had asked to be removed from the board, she should have done it earlier," Dean said, adding that the confusion likely arose from a misperception that Banos would be moving out of Longview.
Newly elected LEDCO President Keith Honey agreed business and educational qualifications are the main criteria for board members.
"Certainly, there has been no intention at all not to have diversity on the board," Honey said. "As the board looks at making recommendations to the council, we look for people that bring a background that brings with it broad business experience, broad educational training experience. We try to bring diversity to the board by people's background, or their experiences, or the businesses they represent."
Through Mayo and other previous board members, the LEDCO board in previous years has had minority membership, Honey said, and it will again.
Williams, who represents predominantly black District 3 on the city's south side, said the council's action concerning the LEDCO board appointments was a missed opportunity.
"It was an opportunity for us to let the community know we heard their concerns," she said. "I think that there are a lot of qualified people throughout our community, but we must continue to build on the kind of culture that makes people feel comfortable in seeking these positions."
Contacted by the News-Journal for comment on her rejected nomination, Mayo said, "I don't have any comment to make about any of that."
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Longview's population grew 9.7 percent in 10 years, from 73,344 in 2000 to 80,455 in 2010.
The most recent census also found most people who live in Longview are white - 56.2 percent. Black residents comprise 22.6 percent of the city's population, Hispanic residents comprise 18.0 percent, Asian residents are 1.3 percent, Indian residents are 0.4 percent, and the remainder are a combination of mixed or other races.
A majority of Longview residents are female, at 51.2 percent. About 30 percent of the population is aged 50 or older.
But none of the city's appointed boards are predominantly female, and none reflect the city's racial makeup of 56 percent white, 22 percent black and 18 percent Hispanic.
Saleem Shabazz, a black Muslim who is a member of the city's Unity and Diversity Committee, said only recently did the city make a concerted effort to diversify its boards.
"I think they have been overwhelmingly controlled by Anglo Saxon males. That is where most of the power is concentrated," Shabazz said.
But Dean said the city had made progress in its diversity efforts, not only on boards and committees but in the municipal workplace.
In December, the city put in place a Workforce Diversity Plan to facilitate hiring, development, and promotion of qualified employees, including underrepresented members of minority groups.
Dean blamed a lack of applicants for part of the problem in developing diverse boards.
"I really want to see more and more applications being filled out," he said. "The more diversity on the committees and boards, the more we truly represent we are a diverse community."
But Johnson says the large white majority serving on the city's boards makes some minorities reluctant to volunteer their services.
"At most of the boards you have at least one minority, or one female. Even if it is a minority, is it representative of the city?" Johnson asked.
Though fingers can be pointed at city leaders for not recognizing the city's population is changing, making sure boards are diverse is a shared responsibility, Shabazz said.
"I think both sides have to create awareness. Minorities need to understand they do have recourse and power, but we have to get involved in activities so we can be involved in the decision making," he said. "We have to attend meetings, have to join boards and other things. That way we get a say in things, but we can't do that from standing on the sidelines.
The Unity and Diversity Board this year changed its name to reflect the city's changing cultural tide in recent years, Shabazz said. When created two decades ago, it was was known as the Race Relations Board.
"The new name gives a broader scope to what we are trying to do," he said. "I think the city's makeup is changing faster than the city's ability to keep up with it."
Any Longview resident can apply to serve on a board. The council Appointments Committee reviews applications - usually in March - then makes a slate of recommendations for the City Council to consider. The council routinely appoints committees in March, and it may make other appointments throughout the year to fill vacancies as they come up.
Most boards have staggered terms of service, and no person can be appointed to serve more than two consecutive full terms on any city board, commission or committee. They can, however, be appointed to serve on another board, committee or commission.
Williams said the city has a big binder of applicants in the city manager's office, but she did not know the racial or gender makeup of the applicants.
Typically, staff liaison Mary Ann Miller works with members of the Appointments Committee to match the applicants to available positions. This year, the city made a concerted push to get more applications, resulting in a larger pool than in recent years, said Shawn Hara, city spokesman.
Williams said the city should make it a priority not just to get more applications, but to get applications from a diverse group of residents willing to devote the time to serve their city.
Some city boards require specific qualifications. One example is the Historical Preservation Commission. The seven-member committee is required to include an architect, a planner, or representative of a design profession; a historian or someone knowledgeable in local history; a licensed real estate broker; an attorney; an owner of a historical landmark; an owner of a property in a Historic Overlay District; and a board member of one of the local non-profit preservation groups.
Longview is not alone in its struggle to ensure boards, committees and commissions are representative of the community.
In Marshall, 108 people serve on city boards, committees and commissions. Of those, 35 people - or about 32 percent - are black. Marshall's black population in 2010 was about 38 percent.
Seventy of the 108 appointees are white - or about 64 percent - while, according to the 2010 census, whites comprised 43 percent of Marshall's population.
Three Hispanic residents serve on Marshall's decision-making panels - or about 2 percent - while they accounted for almost 20 percent of the city's 2010 population.
Unlike Longview, Marshall officials could provide the city's racial and gender data because, City Manager Frank Johnson said, a member of the Marshall City Council requested a demographic survey of the city's boards, committees and commissions a few months ago. Such a survey has not been conducted on the Longview boards.
"If the composition of our boards should reflect the composition of our population, obviously there is room for improvement," Johnson said.
The five-member Marshall Economic Development Corp. board is made up of two women and three men.
Like LEDCO, the MEDCO board makes its own membership recommendations to the City Council. The council can approve the recommendations or appoint someone else to the board, said Donna Maisel, MEDCO executive director.