City building

The Athens city building. File art by Sydney Dawes.

Athens City Council on Monday rushed through passage of an ordinance to spend over $91,000 on mandatory racial equity training for all city employees.

In its first meeting after the July recess, council completed the Finance and Personnel Committee hearing on the proposal, then suspended the rules and passed it unanimously after first reading.

The ordinance allows Athens Mayor Steve Patterson to spend up to $91,650 from the city’s general fund on racial equity training through the National League of Cities “Race, Equity and Leadership” courses. All 251 city employees will be required to complete the training.

According to the NLC website, REAL was created in 2015 in response to unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. NLC’s REAL program “helps to empower and equip local officials with tools to address racial disparities in their communities,” the website says.

The training normally costs approximately $102,000, Athens Council Member Sam Crowl said, but the city gets a 10% discount on the training because Athens is a member of the NLC. With the discount, the cost per employees for the training is $365.14.

“While this is fairly expensive for the training, you can’t put a price tag on the public health crisis racism is,” Patterson said.

When asked for comment on Tuesday, former council member Pat McGee burst out laughing.

"We obviously have a difference of opinion as to the value of the public's money," he said. "Why don't they give $100,000 to WOUB and instruct people to watch their wonderful shows about racism? They would have a much better sense of our history from that."

Patterson told City Council on Monday that he had been working with the NLC for seven or eight months to bring the REAL program to Athens.

The program offers courses at multiple levels. All city employees will take the REAL 100 and 200 courses, Patterson said.

Athens City Council Member Sarah Grace, who already has taken the REAL 100 course, said it was a “fantastic class.”

“I am proud of Athens for taking this step and for requiring it of all our city employees because it's very valuable,” Grace said.

City officials including department managers will take the REAL 300 course, which includes higher-level racial equity concepts. Even fewer city officials, Patterson said, will take the REAL 400 course, which “trains the trainer,” preparing city officials to continue education in the city after the program concludes.

“Then we will have individuals who will carry on training as we move forward,” Patterson said.

The program also includes consulting services and a community survey, in which NLC and REAL consultants will advise the Racial Equity Coalition and Athens City in holding community dialogue sessions about systemic racism. (Members of the Racial Equity Coalition could not be reached by publication time.)

“There would be a city-employee wide survey the data for that will be informative to REAL where REAL can somewhat customize a training platform,” Patterson said.

Council hopeful Damon Krane, however, is skeptical about the effectiveness of training that isn't based on qualitative research into racism — such as a thorough review of police records of traffic stops and ticket, arrests and use of force.

"If we don't have a clear understanding of the extent and nature of the problem, education isn't going to be as well tailored," he said. "And how do we measure its effectiveness if we don't have a benchmark?"

Patterson framed the training in the context of council's June 2020 resolution declaring racism a public health emergency in the wake of the George Floyd's death.

“I would like to ask Council to honor that resolution,” Patterson said.

Ward 4 City Council Member Arian Smedley said the city was honoring their commitment.

“I think it's very much in line with what we committed ourselves to doing is to address the problems in a comprehensive way,” Smedley said, adding that the large price tag will be a “welcome investment for residents.”

Krane, though, wonders if the funds are an investment or merely a gesture.

"Programs cost money, there's no way around that," he said. "I worry that this is a matter of throwing money at a problem to appear to be doing something."

Patterson told City Council that it will take a while before any training gets underway. For example, the Athens Police Department must complete the racial equity training it is undergoing through Ohio University.

“It’s going to take some time,” Patterson said. “We’re not going to hurry through the training — although I do want to get the city employees through as expeditiously as possible,” Patterson said.

For his part, Krane is unimpressed about the training as Athens' answer to racism and as the response to council's June 2020 resolution.

"It's a step in the right direction, but folks should remain skeptical," he said. "Giving them as much benefit of the doubt, there's still reason to be skeptical about how long they dragged their feet in making good on their promise."

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