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Council provides feedback on four overarching DEI Task Force recommendations and a work plan.

The Lake Oswego City Council is gearing up to move forward with an increased focus on diversity, equity and inclusion work this year.

Staff presented a work plan to the Lake Oswego City Council during the Jan. 19 meeting that included the scope, schedule and budget for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force recommendations.

During a meeting last December, the DEI Task Force presented a substantial list of recommendations to the council that would help break down barriers that currently prevent a person from serving on one of the city's boards or commissions or for applying to work at the city, among other categories. The task force was formed in early 2020 as part of a council goal to foster more diversity at City Hall.

The work plan presented by Assistant City Manager Megan Phelan focused on the task force's four overarching recommendations: to hire a full-time equity program manager; establish a permanent DEI commission, committee or board; create a training and development program that supports the implementation of DEI strategies for council, staff and boards and commissions; and form partnerships with organizations and businesses that support underrepresented communities.

"A lot of those recommendations that were in the whole report from the DEI Task Force really rely upon the first four being completed to some degree," said Phelan, adding that the timeline to complete the four overarching recommendations is six to 12 months. The remaining recommendations would build on that work for approximately the next five years.

Phelan first asked the City Council for feedback on hiring an equity program manager, whose duties would include researching and implementing best practices for internal equity training, helping establish recruitment and retention strategies to increase the diversity of the city's workforce and advising departments on integrating equitable practices, among other duties.

The position would report to the city manager or assistant city manager and the budget set aside for this position would be about $200,000. Phelan said this is an overestimate to include items like salary, benefits and taxes.

The timeline and process for hiring someone would begin right away to see if the city can absorb another position prior to the new fiscal year, which begins July 1. If the funding is not available, the city would wait to staff this position until July 1.

Phelan said the city is looking for someone to help change "the culture of our work environment, and to really be embedded and have their finger on the pulse of our organization to help make recommendations, make decisions, guide staff, answer questions [and] be a sounding board so we can ultimately roll out the recommendations from the DEI Task Force."

Phelan added she's anxious to have someone on staff to "be that guiding light."

Councilor John Wendland, who said he was in support of doing a lot of what the DEI Task Force recommended, stated that the council hasn't had a chance to fully discuss the report and how it would fit into the council's upcoming goals, which will be established during the Jan. 23 goal-setting session. He questioned how adding this position would affect other departments where additional staff is desired.

"There are desires to add staff in different areas so it is absolutely correct that you would be saying this is a priority over other areas, some of which you'd had task forces for, some of which you haven't," City Manager Martha Bennett said.

City Councilor Rachel Verdick said this position should be prioritized.

"It's a way that we can better serve all of the members of our community and that's one of our greatest missions is to serve our entire community and to make sure we do so equitably," she said. "I don't want this to be a check in the box. I really want us to embrace this and make it happen and hopefully in years down the road, this position won't be necessary because we will have had such success — and maybe that's a pie-in-the-sky goal."

Verdick added the work to change the culture can't fall on this one person; city leaders and the council all have to embrace the work.

Fellow councilors echoed those sentiments.

Councilor Aaron Rapf said Wendland made a good point and that he has grappled with how to fiscally afford this added position.

"I've come to an interesting realization that I will stand behind the immediate resource outlay to pay for it because I believe we're going to make it back 10, 15, 20-fold when this community, one, has shed the moniker of the community people say it is and more younger families move to town and buy properties here," Rapf said.

Council President Daniel Nguyen agreed that the investment in this position will pay off.

The establishment of a permanent DEI Committee would help advise the council about ways to increase engagement in diverse communities and would include collaborating with key people to implement the current DEI Task Force's recommendations and create long-term DEI goals, all of which would require no additional financial resources.

The first step of the process would be for staff to reach out to former task force members to seek their input on the interviewing process for members of the permanent committee starting in February.

"Staff support for the DEI Committee will be the Equity Program Manager," read the staff report. "Integrating participating voting members of interview panels for boards and commissions recruitments will not (be) able to take place until 2022 as the DEI Commission will not be established in time to include them on interview panels for 2021."

Phelan said she will likely return before the council to formally establish the committee in March, which would be a good time to have discussions around the committee's focus for the first year.

Moving forward with the first two recommendations will be critical for the success of the remaining two overarching recommendations, which would develop a comprehensive training and development program and cultivate and sustain partnerships with businesses that support underrepresented communities.

Phelan said creating the comprehensive program is already part of the job description for the equity manager and that the human resources department has been doing ongoing training around DEI topics since 2018. This plan would be a more expansive and formal approach. According to the staff report, this plan would need to include training for council and staff members at least every other year and annual training for boards and commissions interviewing panelists and members. No additional resources other than staff time is required to develop the plan, officials said. Once it's developed, potential fees for trainers or consultants could come into play.

In September or October, the city would develop the training program and estimate budget requirements. The plan would then be presented to the city manager, and if approved, implementation would begin in November or December.

With regards to partnerships with businesses supporting underrepresented communities, Phelan said "we need more of those organizations in Lake Oswego specifically. We have a few but we need to get more."

The proposed timeline said the human resources department and city manager's office would begin preliminary work in February or March. In July, staff would identify organizations and businesses that support these types of communities in the Portland metro area and begin reaching out to establish relationships in August or September.

Mayor Joe Buck said he is looking forward to the work that will follow the recommendations. He said if the work was comfortable, the city would not be affecting change, adding it's important to feel uncomfortable.

"Embrace that as a sign we're on the right track," Buck said. "Let that discomfort drive us forward."

In other news

Also during the Jan. 19 meeting, the City Council unanimously approved an ordinance to help struggling businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ordinance extends the timeframe for temporary outdoor structures like tents to be used through May 2021. Previously, tents could only be used for 14 consecutive days.

The proposed code amendments do not include permanent structures like canopies and awnings, though there is now a more streamlined process to approve those structures.

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