S.E. Williams | Executive Editor
Merriam-Webster Defines Equity as “Freedom of Bias or Favoritism.”
When the nation rose in response to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police last year, state and local leaders rushed to declare “Racism a Public Health Crisis.”
By mid-January 2021, the National League of Cities (NLC) reported more than 90 cities, 65 counties and five states had made the declaration with more preparing to do the same.
“The turning point of a disease is when an important change takes place, indicating either recovery or death,” Dr. April Joy Damian said during NLC’s 2020 City Summit.
During the session NLC declared “local leaders have the power to listen to their marginalized and oppressed communities, especially poor BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other people of color), LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian,Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual), disabled women and gender-non-conforming people, and center their lived experiences to address this crisis.”
Science has quantified what BIPOC people know through personal experience—racism is the impetus driving the social determinants of health including housing, education, employment, access to healthcare and more.
Ensuring change, however, will not be achieved at the same level of thinking used to create and sustain it.
Change happens by ensuring members of a community not only exercise their franchise but within the chambers of power, it means ensuring transparency and equity in all aspects of administration.
Advocates for change in cities like Redlands where two councilmembers represent segments of the city’s evolving demographics—former Mayor Pro Tem Denise Davis who is openly LGBTQIA+, and the city’s current Mayor Pro Tem Eddie Tejeda who is a Latinx man—coalesced for the successful passage of their city’s declaration, an accomplishment for a city with a troubled racist past.
This declaration was celebrated until it came time to take the first step toward actual, systemic change.
This is where the acknowledgement of the “crisis” clashed with reality. Real change which often impinges on the status quo and can be resisted in the halls of power and authority.
This was demonstrably apparent during a recent effort by Davis to change the way the city council appoints its mayor and mayor pro tem, and to reconsider the length of their respective terms.
When Davis introduced the resolution in December 2020, there was strong resistance from some council members, some quite forceful. Alternative options were offered, voted down and the council agreed to reconsider Davis’ proposal in January after consulting with constituents. What unfolded in the succeeding council meetings was nothing less than remarkable, unworthy of a leadership body and outside acceptable decorum.
Many members of the community weighed in both for and against the initiative. During the January discussion however, Davis was blindsided and attacked with a level of venom, alacrity and personal assaults by a peer whose aggressive recriminations were considered debased, off topic and inappropriate, appearing more akin to the antics of a bully.
The attacker was none other than her former ally, fellow councilmember Tejeda.
“I was shocked,” Davis said. “It seemed to come out of nowhere. We have never had a direct confrontation or disagreement so you can imagine my surprise when he all of a sudden started attacking me in the December meeting and then more blatantly attacking me in the January meeting.”
The attack grew more debased as Mayor Paul Foster sat quietly allowing Tejeda to drone on for several minutes without stopping the diatribe. At one point Councilmember Jenna Guzman-Lowery tried to intervene. Tejeda would not yield the floor.
“Normally when someone is talking about something off topic, it is the mayor’s job to stop that,” Davis said. “To say, ‘I’m sorry, but you need to make your comments be on topic or we have to move on’ I was reflecting on this after the meeting and was really quite disappointed this did not happen.”
It took Mayor Foster nearly a week to call Councilmember Davis and apologize for not stopping Tejeda. He claimed it was a technical error. Critics are skeptical and question why the apology was not made in public.
She admitted texting Tejeda after the December meeting: “I’m really shocked and appalled by your behavior. Please stop spreading lies about me.”
He never responded.
“So, I can only guess as to what his motive was in those moments,” she said.
Looking back, Davis pointed to the irony in what happened, particularly Tejeda’s claim she was seeking to grab power.
“(O)ften decisions for mayor and mayor pro tem are made based on backroom deals. . . backroom conversations,” Davis said.
Davis’ proposal would preclude this.
“My proposal, as I said numerous times in meetings, was rooted in equity. We have a model in which we elect representatives by district and that was for a specific reason.”
In the last decade, numerous groups and individuals sued municipalities based on the California Voting Rights Act.
“[The suits were] based on the fact a lot of our voting systems are not set up to privilege minority votes, and in fact, are set up to suppress minority votes,” she said.
A few years ago, the City of Redlands decided instead of leaving the city vulnerable to such lawsuits, it moved to a district model.
“It was a really smart thing the city did. I think it’s really great we have a district model form of representation.”
What did not make sense, according to Davis, is why the city did not change the mayor model at the same time. She pointed to the City of Palm Springs as an example. “When Palm Springs was transitioning to districts they thought about the impact of the mayoral process.”
“They had a working group examine this and examine how their process should align with the California Voting Rights Act.” Ultimately, they decided the most equitable model was a “rotational” mayor model.
“It is unbiased, it is transparent, it does not privilege one district over another, and it is not privileging people’s perceptions of each other,” Davis said. “It is not based on people’s personalities. Each representative is elected equally and therefore should have an equal chance to serve as mayor and mayor pro tem.”
Assessing Tejeda’s verbal assaults on her Davis said, “I think it was an attempt to attack my character. He flat lied. His claims were baseless, and his behavior was obviously unprofessional, inappropriate and off topic; but I think he was doing that to demonstrate why he thinks I should not be in a leadership role.”
Tejeda obviously had ambitions to be in a leadership role himself she offered.
That reality was evident when her proposal was first defeated—with all the men on the council voting against it—before they then turned, and elected Tejeda to the position of mayor pro tem, replacing Davis. Next, when her name was placed in nomination for mayor by Guzman-Lowery it was apparent the fix was in. She received zero support from the male councilmembers who elected Paul Barich to serve as the city’s new mayor instead.
Despite these defeats Davis still believes her proposal was the right direction for the city noting had they chosen to adopt her proposal the city could have experienced more diverse representation.
“Especially if we were rotating (the mayor’s role) every year.” This, she concluded, would have given the city more of a chance than it has had for diverse representation. “We have a two-year model.”
Davis learned while researching her proposal she found Redlands is the only city in its peer group—its peer group being general law cities without an elected mayor who are between 50,000 to 90,000 in terms of population—with a two-year mayoral term.
She noted how every other city in the peer group has a one-year term for mayor.
“Even if they have a different way of selecting the mayor, they have a rotation that moves people in and out within a year.”
This increases the chance of having minority representation or people from marginalized groups in those leadership roles.
She added it is very unfortunate Redlands is not going to have that.
“We have an old model that, prior to this moment—we have a new mayor—but prior to this, we had the same mayor six years in a row.” Evidence, she noted, of sticking to the status quo. “In Redlands we’ve had rich White men in this role, and I don’t know that that will change anytime soon because we don’t have a process in place that will advance that equitable model.”
Former Mayor Foster was adamant the constituents he spoke with were against the change stating the consensus was, ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,’ possibly because that is the way it has always been.
“I was disheartened to hear those comments about the system not being broken because I see it very differently and I said this during the meeting,” Davis said. “I think the system is broken because it is producing a very homogeneous type of leader in that position. I think that people are making those comments because they are afraid of change and they are very comfortable with the status quo.”
Davis believes this is because it has benefited them and their friends for generations.
Those who opposed Davis on this issue never bothered to argue whether the existing model is equitable.
“There’s not one (argument) rooted in the true definition of equity. I think some people tried to allude to the model being equitable which is what prompted me to share the definition of equity from the dictionary in the second meeting because people had it wrong and I was glad I had the chance to clarify that. But most of these comments are not concerned with equity. It’s in direct opposition to the ‘Racism as a Public Health Crisis’ resolution we passed which highlighted the need to have more diverse representation. My colleagues, who had voted unanimously in favor of that resolution, voted to turn down this more equitable proposal when given the opportunity.”
Data shows Mayor Pro Tem Tejeda’s district is the only majority-minority (Latinx) district in the city.
“That is significant because the previous mayor, Paul Foster, had a proposal on the agenda to reduce the (city’s) districts from five to four and to go with an elected mayor model,” Davis said.
She spent a good deal of time and energy disputing the mayor’s proposal primarily because of the city’s one, majority-majority district.
“If we were to reduce the districts from five to four, I don’t see how we could do that without diluting the minority vote,” she said. “(I)t would also make us vulnerable to a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit.”
The proposal was defeated, possibly more due to costs than anything else. Tejeda voted against it and Davis believes he may have cited the issue of equity as the reason. Although she could not recall exactly what was said at the time, she believes it now appears hypocritical as he refused to support her equity centered proposal.
“What is most important and why I ran for City Council, is to do all I can to make the city more equitable in all of our policies, practices and lived realities.”
Despite the failure of her proposal, Davis is looking forward and, if she sees another opportunity, will try again.
“I will absolutely do my best to work with my colleagues to advance what I think is in the best interest of Redlands to move us forward,” she concluded.
S.E. Williams is executive editor of the IE Voice and Black Voice News.