Tempers flared amid city leaders, citizen volunteers and the general public last week during the subcommittee meeting on the fate of the proposed Community Council on Diversity and Inclusion.
The subject of the proposed council has become heated over the last several weeks, as those who wish to see it formed under the umbrella of the city government seek to move forward in approving the bylaws, and those who wish to see it formed as an independent, nonprofit advocacy organization say it is beyond the scope of the government’s role and responsibilities.
Following the most recent meeting of the Tullahoma Board of Mayor and Alderman, at which the council bylaws were discussed and postponed pending further discussion, Mayor Ray Knowis created a committee to discuss the merits of forming the council as either a city entity or a nonprofit. That committee, chaired by Mayor Pro Tem Jimmy Blanks, met Wednesday, Dec. 2, to come to a consensus on a recommendation to the BOMA at its Monday, Dec. 14 meeting.
However, after more than two and a half hours of discussion and multiple citizen comments, the committee failed to come to any consensus regarding a recommendation for the BOMA.
Multiple citizens on both sides of the debate were able to offer their comments publicly during the committee meeting. About a dozen citizens came to the podium advocating for their position on the council, making arguments that included inclusivity, business sense, government overreach and more on why or why not the council should be a legitimate council of the city government.
Arguments for the council as a city entity included lifting up the voices of those who feel left out or forgotten by their government, as well as acknowledging the city’s failure to act on behalf of certain segments of the residential population.
Susan Carr, from The Arc of Coffee and Moore Counties, spoke on behalf of the disability community, saying the council would be an asset for those she represents.
“I think that the role of this committee would allow the council feedback from its underrepresented communities and would help us move forward,” she said.
Carr said working in nonprofits is difficult work and takes “a lot” for people to accomplish their goals.
“If we can do this through the city and just be an avenue for feedback, how to improve some things, it wouldn’t cost money,” she said. “It would be able to participate.”
Carr also mentioned an incident that possibly could have been avoided had the council already been in place. Several months ago, Carr said, an accessibility meeting took place inside the board chambers room at city hall, which is not an accessible room.
“I don’t think it was intentional, but I just don’t think it was something that was thought about,” Carr said. “We would like to be a voice to have those things thought about.”
Mike Young, of the Coffee County Anti-Drug Coalition, stated having the council as a city entity made the most logical sense from a business recruitment perspective. During his public comments, he said all the companies in which he owns stock and are doing well right now have “dealt with diversity directly, systemically and as part of their corporate culture,” and created cultures of diversity and inclusion proactively, making them likeable companies.
“They recognized years ago that their ability to draw in talent and then keep on talent depended on this intentional and proactive effort,” he said. “It was merely a matter of being responsible as smart businesses.”
Additionally, Young said there was more to the term “diversity” than just physical differences. “Experiential diversity” also contributed to the “cultural assets” that all those who live in Tullahoma bring to the community. A diverse skills base, he said, allows the community to “attract and retain the best talent” and “offer a broader and more adaptable range of products and services.”
If Tullahoma wanted to achieve its goals of attracting good business and a talented workforce, having the council as part of the city government was a “no-brainer.”
“Why would we want to separate these initiatives from our government,” he asked the audience. “It’s been successful for all of these big businesses that I am making money off of. Why wouldn’t it be successful in our community and why wouldn’t we want it to be a part of our government?”
Robin Guidicy, owner of The Grand Lux Inn on East Lincoln Street, argued that having the council as part of the government was the right thing to do, though it may be difficult.
“What I’ve decided, as I’ve gotten older, is it’s easier to be against anything,” he said. “It’s much more difficult to figure out how to make something work.
“It’s easy to be a rock in the middle of a stream and make all the water go around you; but it’s something completely different to be a smooth pebble and make the water move faster and help everybody get to shore and make everybody successful.”
Additionally, Giudicy said creating the council under the umbrella of the city government would be a good first step toward creating a better sense of community among those who live in Tullahoma.
“What I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is there’s got to be room for everybody under the tent,” he said. “There’s got to be room for everybody at the table, whether they know what I know, whether they have the same life experience that I have; whether they do or do not, I’ve got to make room for them at the table.”
Giudicy also said creating a “rewarding city” involved “making the place where everybody wants to be, where everybody wants to live, where people want to come, where people want to retire, where I want to raise my kids.”
On the other side, several citizens said they felt having the council as part of the city government was an abuse of governmental power. Greg Sandlin called it “a perverse application of local government’s role” in the community.
“Such a committee would give the new group an inappropriate perception of authenticity,” he said, as well as creating more division in the community.
Similarly, Chris Connor took issue with the definition of what “underrepresented” communities were, saying the proposed bylaws of the council “already drew conclusions” on who those people were. Additionally, he argued that the council was “a solution in search of a problem,” rather than the other way around.
“When one desires a preconceived outcome, one can find all sorts of data to support their desire while similarly ignoring data to the contrary,” he said. “This is a very slippery slope.”
Richard Brooks, owner of Templar Shooting Sports, said he did not object to the creation of a diversity council itself but felt it was better suited to a nonprofit advocacy group versus an entity of the city government. He also said the stated purpose of the council was “divisive” in nature.
“What the bylaws tell our community is admittedly the board of mayor and aldermen have not been doing their job in the first place, if we need a council to represent a remaining fraction of the community that is historically underrepresented,” he said. “Was the board not elected to do that – represent all persons in Tullahoma?”
He said creating “another useless, tax dollar wasting government entity is not the answer.”
“The opposition to the formation of such a council is not the nature or intent of the council,” he said. “It is simply not the government’s job to continuously create councils, boards and committees in an attempt to fix problems that were created by the government itself.
Further, Brooks said, if the city government had “done its job” by representing all in the community properly, “this would not be an issue in the first place.”
Another person who spoke in opposition of the creation of the council as a government entity was State Sen. Janice Bowling. She said Tullahoma had no need for a diversity council, similarly citing government overreach in her statements.
Bowling began her comments by saying she “laughed” when she first heard the city was thinking of forming a diversity council.
“I said, ‘If this is a joke, what’s the punchline,’” she said. “Because in Tullahoma right now, of seven aldermen, four are women; two are women of color.”
She then said she did not consider Alderman Rupa Blackwell a woman of color.
“I didn’t consider Rupa a woman of color,” she said, “I considered her Rupa.”
Bowling cited her numerous connections to Black families in Tullahoma and Manchester, including the London family, as well as the family of former Manchester Mayor Lonnie Norman, who died of COVID-19 a few weeks ago, though she erroneously called Norman Eugene London, who is still living.
Bowling further stated there was “only one race – the human race.”
“To come here tonight and even discuss making a council based on setting and sub-setting and dividing and looking at the superficial. Tullahoma has dealt with whatever diversity years ago,” she said.
No decision made
Following citizen comments, the committee, made up of Blanks, Aldermen Blackwell and Daniel Berry and citizens Susan Harris, Tisha Fritz, the Rev. Elmore Torbert Jr. and Lynn Sebourn, debated whether or not the council should be a government entity or a nonprofit.
Berry sought clarification on the definition of the term “diversity,” to which Blackwell said the Municipal Advisory Technical Service provided one from a 2015 study.
Harris also sought clarification on terms relating to the council, including was “historically underrepresented” communities were. She asked for a specific timeline for the “historical” reference, to which Chairman Blanks said would likely reference the creation of the country.
Fritz, who works for the Tullahoma Area Chamber of Commerce, said having the council as a government entity could open doors for more businesses to locate to Tullahoma, which would be a huge economic benefit for the community.
Sebourn, who serves on the Coffee County Commission, brought concerns about religious liberties to the other committee members, saying he was afraid that the council might use its bylaws to infringe on the rights of Christians as it relates to LGBTQ+ individuals. Blackwell recognized his beliefs and stated she would add language to the bylaws to make sure religious members of the council would also have equitable recognition and representation.
It became clear early on, however, that the committee was divided in opinion and a consensus recommendation could not be reached.
One solution proposed by City Administrator Jennifer Moody was to only present a report on the discussion from the committee at the next BOMA meeting. There was some discussion that the committee might recommend a task force that would include members of the historically underrepresented communities.
The next BOMA meeting is tomorrow, Monday, Dec. 14 at 5:30 p.m. at city hall, 201 W. Grundy St.