MANSFIELD -- A divided Mansfield City Council on Tuesday night rejected by 5-4 vote a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis.
Council President Cliff Mears, who only votes in the event of a tie among the eight other members of council, cast the tie-breaking vote that defeated a resolution first proposed two months ago and had gained the support of Richland Public Health.
The meeting was again a strictly online session due to COVID-19 that was live-streamed on the city's Facebook page. City Council has not met in person in more than four months since the coronavirus spread into Ohio.
Also voting against the resolution were Laura Burns (1st Ward), Jon Van Harlingen (3rd Ward), Jason Lawrence (5th Ward) and At-large Councilman David Falquette.
Voting in support of the resolution were Cheryl Meier (2nd Ward), Alomar Davenport (4th Ward), Jean Taddie (6th Ward) and At-large Councilman Phil Scott.
The thrust of the effort, being driven by a diverse group of nine local women, would come through the formation of a community task force to study inequality issues and recommend solutions to local elected officials and policy makers.
It would also work as with RPH on the the next community needs assessment to improve participation by Blacks and other people of color.
In an email after the meeting, Mears said he doesn't see a racism crisis in the city.
"What I see is our residents going out of their way to embrace our diversity of races and cultures, and getting along just fine. Are there prejudices? Disparities? Yes. Is it at crisis proportions? Not in my view," he said.
Mears also rejected the notion of systemic racism.
"This infers an organized, planned, and deliberate organization that sets out to exhibit blatant racism. Again, I see no evidence of that. Not here. Not in my Mansfield," he said.
"We should all be proud to live here in Mansfield. I see its residents getting along, helping each other, communicating openly, and welcoming each other into their homes regardless of race or culture. That's the Mansfield I see, that I live in," the council president said.
"Many constituents reached out to me with very much the same perspective. The bill was offensive to quite a few of them," Mears said.
In an emailed statement after the meeting, the leadership collective of Voices of Change, Activism and Leadership (VOCAL), sharply criticized the City Council decision.
"Tonight, Mansfield City Council made a tragic statement in a community with statistically inarguable evidence of racial disparities, highlighted in the North End Community Improvement Collaborative’s (NECIC) piece, The Richland County State of the African-American Report," the group said.
"City Council, after three reads and lots of community feedback, was unable to demonstrate support for a simple resolution recognizing that systemic racism exists and we should address it.
"We said from the start that this was an easy opportunity we provided for the city to demonstrate positive leadership, courage, human decency, and regard for human life. They failed our community tonight. We will continue to mobilize the many community leaders who have embraced the work of the task force," the statement said.
"Our work making change will continue. So, we will leave it to those who have opposed such a basic stand against the impact of racism to explain your position to the rest of the country. We are truly among only a handful of cities in America in this moment to actually fail to pass a resolution against racism," the statement said.
Before City Council adjourned, Richland Source asked members who voted against the resolution to explain their reasons either before the meeting adjourned or by email.
None addressed it before the meeting ended. Mears, Burns and Falquette responded afterward. Van Harlingen and Lawrence did not.
Prior to the vote, Burns suggested language changes to the proposal she said would make the resolution "more inclusive so that no community of color feels left out."
Those changes were approved unanimously.
Burns then almost immediately joined the four other council members in defeating the resolution.
After the meeting, Burns told Richland Source she felt the proposal's language was vague and followed a template provided by an outside entity.
"We don't fit within the parameters of a big city. Our community has worked so hard to build ourselves up ... this template didn't feel right to me," Burns said.
So why propose changing the language if she intended to vote against it, regardless?
"My personal feelings aside, I am here to represent the people of the 1st Ward. I reached out to people. People reached out to me. Three times as many people told me they were against the resolution as were in favor," Burns said.
"I honestly thought it would pass. I really did," said Burns, who casts the first vote on all resolutions as the 1st Ward representative. "I thought about it long and hard and I just couldn't support it."
Burns said the committee of nine local women, who began work on this proposal months ago when the racial disparities of COVID-19 became apparent, didn't need the "approval" of City Council.
"They are determined women. They are already working in the community and they are already making a difference," Burns said.
During a three-hour public affairs committee meeting July 14, Taddie spent 75 minutes reading emails from local residents, almost all of whom were in favor of the resolution.
Falquette said several of his constituents, including some he identified as Black leaders in the community, were opposed to the resolution.
"A couple felt it was on the condescending side," he said.
He said the committee pushing the proposal is already doing great things and that it was unfortunate the resolution came up during a time of social unrest, sparked by the May 25 murder of a Black man named George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
Falquette said the timing had led to "a lot of misinformation flying around."
He said racism is a problem that needs to be addressed, but, "I had enough people pulling against an affirmative vote at this time."
"I would hope we didn't slow the momentum of the committee, but we probably did," Falquette said. "We probably took some of the wind out of their sales. I hope they keep pushing forward, but there needs to be a lot more community discussion."
In other action on Tuesday, City Council:
-- discussed a $35 million bond proposal to pay for EPA-mandated improvements to the city's water treatment plant. It also discussed a water rate increase of 70 percent over the next six years to help pay for the improvements and maintain the city's water system infrastructure for the next decade. Votes on the proposed issues would not come until September.
-- voted to amend sections of the personnel ordinance by creating and adjusting positions, pay grades and salaries for certain city employees during the 2020 payroll year.
-- voted to grant a license, retroactive to Aug. 1, to the Richland Early American Center for History (REACH) to construct and install a blacksmith shop in South Park.
-- voted on a resolution honoring telecommunicator Lewanda Jefferson upon her retirement from the Mansfield Division of Police.
-- voted to rezone six lots along the east side of Lily Street and southeast corner of Raymond Avenue to I-2 (general impact industrial district) from its current status of MF (multi-family residential district.)
-- voted to authorize the city to accept a gift from Chuck Hahn for the maintenance of trees and shrubs on Fourth and Main streets.
-- voted to purchase three Lifepack 15 Heart Monitor/Defibrillators for the Mansfield Fire Department, without competitive bidding, from Stryker, Inc., at a cost not to exceed $66,753.60 after trade in of three older models. All but $3,553.90 of the expense will come via a grant.
-- voted to purchase laptops, softphone licensing and remote video equipment at a cost not to exceed $87,600 using CARES Act relief funds.
-- voted to pay the Richland Land Bank $58,681 for home demolitions, using PRIDE funds.
-- voted to appropriate $35,940 from the unappropriated law enforcement fund to the METRICH fund.
-- voted to appropriate $46,795 from the unappropriated safety service fund for the purchase of a new police vehicle. It will replace a cruiser damaged in an accident. The city received $26,835 in insurance payments from the driver of the car in fault in the accident.