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Tensions flare before racial justice resolution passes

Ashland City Council passed a sweeping resolution Tuesday that will help the council set policies to address systemic racism, but not before a tense debate that culminated with Councilor Julie Akins making an apparent dramatic exit via Zoom.

After nearly an hour of discussion surrounding the process with which the Resolution Declaring the City of Ashland’s Commitment to Social Equity and Racial Justice was drafted, Akins was the sole opposing vote — albeit on a technicality.

The resolution sets more than a dozen priorities ranging from recognizing Juneteenth as an “annual day of municipal commemoration” and installing Black Lives Matter signs on city properties to advocating for greater mental health and addiction resources in instances where Ashland police are called.

By the time Mayor John Stromberg called for a vote on the resolution, Akins had left the meeting held electronically and didn’t answer the mayor’s phone call.

Ashland Assistant City Attorney Katrina Brown advised the mayor that unless a councilor is excused from voting, a councilor who votes neither yes or no shall be counted as a “no” vote under the city charter.

Akins had voiced opposition to the “process” leading up to the resolution.

Speaking on behalf of members of the Truth and Conciliation Commission, a group Akins helped found, Akins called for the process to be slowed down to better include people who will be directly impacted by the resolution.

“I’m not an expert, but I am being told by folks in the Black, Indigenous, Person of Color (BIPOC) communities that acting on their behalf without their full consent, authority and participation is another form of colonizing — is another form of what white folks do that marginalizes people of color,” Akins said.

Councilor Tonya Graham said she drafted the resolution based on concerns she heard from minority community leaders and ally organizations such as Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Southern Oregon University. Graham said she heard from BIPOC people who told her they’d like leaders such as city officials to do more “heavy lifting.”

“What we heard is people are tired — many folks have been working for decades on this issue,” Graham said, adding that her resolution is a “starting place” and “something to be built over time.”

The resolution includes more than a dozen action items, such as supporting Ashland police taking a more active role in racial justice conversations on the SOU campus, stronger intrinsic bias training for the council and city staff, Black Lives Matter signs at city-owned locations to “offer visible and immediate support for racial justice advocates in our community,” enhancing the city’s support for Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, outreach to SOU students of color, working with Jackson County and neighboring communities to develop a program that would provide trained mental health professionals when police are called to situations involving people suffering from mental health issues or addiction problems, determining the feasibility of a mural project, and renewing outreach efforts with indigenous community leaders to help the county rename Dead Indian Memorial Road.

“It’s not designed to shut the door, it’s designed to open it to the larger body of work that we’re trying to do,” Graham said.

Akins said there were “a lot of great elements with it,” but she can’t support it because, “process is important.”

“This would feel a lot more comfortable if in these [Zoom] boxes were not all white faces,” Akins said. “This would feel a lot more comfortable if this was a study session and we had folks in the BIPOC community who were on the Zoom call with us and we could have this conversation.”

Councilor Dennis Slattery acknowledged that the council will be made up of all white people for at least the next six months.

“But these white faces are willing to step forward and get some things moving in order to help lay the groundwork for future progress,” Slattery said.

Slattery, who worked on the resolution with Graham, clarified to Akins during the meeting that this is a resolution, which expresses intent as a city council that they “intend to act along these lines.” Any policies that come forward from the resolution would come back to the council, and residents would have a full opportunity to comment on those policies.

“Right now, what we’re saying is we’re going to support Juneteenth,” Slattery said. “We’re not saying we’re going to do Juneteenth like Dennis and Tonya want it to be done.”

Councilor Stephen Jensen called the resolution a “wonderful framework.”

“It’s more than a starting point, it’s a robust declaration on the part of this body, and I fully support it,” Jensen said.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.

Ashland's historic City Hall. file photo