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RSJ Director Denise Molina Capers calls allowing public testimony on her presentation to the Finance Committee unprecedented, Mayor Curtatone agrees

(Somerville Wire) – On June 7, the Finance Committee of the Somerville City Council held a meeting, during which Director of the Racial and Social Justice Office (RSJ) Denise Molina Capers presented a proposed budget for her department. Featured in her talk was a chart that outlined the eight positions that would make up the RSJ office, under her leadership. Following her discussion, chair and Councilor J.T. Scott announced that many questions had come in from members of commissions who were included as part of the chart, and Scott sponsored members of the public to speak in response. On June 10, at a City Council meeting, Capers read a letter describing the move to hear from the public as “imbalanced,” adding that she was “saddened by the way the commissioners’ concerns were handled.”

“To maintain equitable access to a public forum, residents have historically been directed to share their input about the proposed budget at the public hearing, the night designated for hearing community feedback from any member of the public,” said Capers. “Why did the Committee break from this commitment to be equitable and fair? Why did this deviation from a long-standing budget hearing fairness practice first manifest here, in this particular moment, during the first-ever budget hearing for the Racial and Social Justice Office?”

According to Capers, there had been last minute notice of the sponsored public testimonials, which to her knowledge, had never happened before during a budget hearing. Comments principally came from commissions who had been folded under RSJ in the chart; RSJ is part of a team that is responsible for staffing the Commission for Women, the Commission for Persons with Disabilities, and the Human Rights Commission, said Capers. Speakers included Crystal Turner from the Commission for Women, Bonnie Denis from the Commission for Persons with Disabilities, and Derrick Rice, who has been involved in the Human Rights Commission but is a member of the public.

A common theme raised by the speakers was that they do not feel that the commissions have been supported enough by the City. Turner expressed that she wanted her commission to be an autonomous department with its own executive director.

“We received a memo from the Mayor, stating that the director’s recommendation had already been submitted on [June 2], and it proposed a structure whereby we would be sharing a coordinator with the Human Rights commission,” said Turner. She added, “As a commission, we respectfully disagree with this proposal that the Mayor has accepted as an adequate resolution of the existing challenges that we have outlined. Our ordinance calls for us to be staffed by an executive director, someone who is being paid $40,000 a year… We’re supposed to have someone who is qualified… Anything less than that would be dysfunctional…”

Denis expressed similar concerns, insisting that her commission had never been consulted about Capers’ presentation and that she had never met Capers before. The Commission for Persons with Disabilities has been trying to create an ADA coordinator position, but Denis was never kept informed about what would happen with this position and when it would be staffed. After much searching, she finally found out that the position was created and moved under RSJ.

“It feels very much like the Commission for Persons with Disabilities, the Commission for Women, and the Human Rights Commission were kind of rolled under this and continued to not get the support that we need and that we have been asking for,” said Denis.

Capers explained that she does not necessarily disagree with the concerns that were voiced by the speakers but that it was the way that the responses were handled that agitated her, stating that she felt that there were “undercurrents of racism and bias.”

Scott stated that in his position, he believed that it was important to have speakers be heard, regardless of how he felt about the content of their comments. He added that it is not unusual for officers of the City to address the council on issues regarding their specific commissions that may be funded under the auspices of another department. He cited an example, stating that the director of the Community Outreach Help and Recovery Department, during the review of the police budget, had stepped forward to speak about the specifics of her operations and funding requirements. While Scott did add that he thought having Rice, a member of the public, may have been a departure, he felt that having speakers from the commissions come forward was appropriate.

“One of my roles, as the chair, is to conduct the meeting and ensure that discussion is [carried forward] in the proper order and that procedures are followed,” said Scott. “To that end, when a City official wishes to address the committee regarding their budget, regardless of my opinion on their budget, that is the proper thing to do. It would be outrageous for me to not allow the director of mobility to address the City Council regarding their budget or address concerns, because the City Council might choose to make motions regarding their budget, whether to cut or increase it. To not have their voice in the room would be certainly out of the ordinary. And as a councilor, as one vote in 11, I also have a role to express my opinion on the organization and function of each of these departments. For most of the City departments that come before us, I also do express, at some point during the departmental review process, concerns about a department, concerns about resources, concerns about organization, and questions about the technical aspects of various funding sources, hiring phasing, long standing vacancies, etc. So I have two roles there.” He added, “When it comes to who gets to address the City Council, in that matter, my opinions are irrelevant.”

According to Meghann Ackerman, deputy director of communications for the City, a memo had been sent to the Commission for Women on June 2 and to the other two commissions on June 7 that outlined the proposed changes. Mayor Joe Curtatone called Capers’ first budget “a starting point that will create an office well suited to take an intersectional approach toward addressing systemic causes of marginalization.” Curtatone attested that the way that Capers’ presentation was handled was atypical.

“As Director Capers said in her statement on June 10, her budget presentation was handled differently than others and the standard protocol of inviting members of the public to speak on the designated public hearing night was not followed,” wrote Curtatone, in a statement. “In both my time as Mayor and on the, as it was then called, Board of Aldermen, I do not remember community members being sponsored to speak during a department’s budget presentation.”

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Shira Laucharoen is assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and assistant editor and staff reporter of the Somerville Wire.

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