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City committee recommends charter changes to increase equity, diversity at city hall

By Kelsey Penrose

Additional reporting by Bob Conrad

Members of Reno’s charter committee today recommended the city of Reno make four steps to increase diversity and equity at all levels of city government.

They said the city should reflect the people comprising the community as a whole.

“When you think about the history of racism and white supremacy in Reno, you do not have to go back that far to see that legacy or its harmful effects,” said charter committee member Edward Coleman. 

“When you imagine a city that is inclusive and equitable … you don’t imagine a city that chooses fanfare … over actually helping improve the lives of its constituents,” he added. “This is the overwhelming image of the city of Reno and its governing institutions that I received from my time on the charter committee.”

The group recommended the city remove gendered language from the city charter, hire a chief equity officer and add green infrastructure projects to mitigate, in part, effects of urban heat islands. 

Reno was recently re-designated one of the fastest warming cities in America. Coleman said communities of color are disproportionately affected by these climate change trends.

Committee member Dennis Green said gendered pronouns should be replaced with gender-neutral pronouns. 

“The purpose for the change is to strike all instances of heteronormative language within the Reno City Charter so as to ensure that the city of Reno’s government document recognizes all of its citizens and reflects inclusivity goals,” he said.

A new CEO

A chief equity officer, or CEO, would give greater latitude at city hall for increasing diversity in hiring, influence public policy and management decisions, and ensure city leadership has an inclusive community engagement process.

The amendment would create a new section to the charter with the intent of “outlining the city’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion through inclusive engagement processes” and the hiring of a chief equity officer. 

“In some cases, city officials presented data that indicated they know about the inequality but either chose not to act or acted as minimally required by law.” 

Committee member Nnedi Stephens said that during investigations, the committee found that the composition of city staffing has become more white and more male in the last two years. 

Council member Devon Reese asked why the role of a Chief Equity Officer would be appropriate to be entered into the city charter as opposed to another position such as a sustainability manager. 

“We want to make sure that there is a systemic way of operationalizing equity within all aspects of how the City of Reno works,” Stephens said. “I think the difference is in scope. When we talk about diversity, equity and inclusion […] I want to make sure that their work touches on every single aspect of what the City of Reno does, because it is just that important.” 

Coleman stressed the position would not change things overnight.

“This is going to require continuous work over a long timeframe. Cultures do not change overnight,” Coleman said. “The Chief Equity Officer as envisioned by Committee Member Stephens and me would have the authority to address these issues with the support of the City Council and have as their sole directive of creating a culture within our city government that promotes equity.

“In meetings with the leaders of various city departments, it was made clear they knew where the inequalities were within city operations,” Coleman said in a statement to This Is Reno after the meeting. “In some cases, city officials presented data that indicated they know about the inequality but either chose not to act or acted as minimally required by law.” 

Council members and the mayor followed the presentation with wide ranging comments about the role of the charter committee and what the group should be doing.

Mayor Hillary Schieve stated that while these discussions were important, the conversations about equity and representation should be occurring on all city boards. 

Nnedi Stephens, a member of the Reno Charter Committee, is one of the longer-serving members of the committee and on Aug. 4 recommended with other committee members the addition of a Chief Equity Officer at the city.

“We are starting to be much more inclusive, [and] it’s so great to have everyone at the table, but I really think maybe these are conversations we have to have with all our other committees,” said Schieve. “I think you’re setting the example and showing what the possibilities are.” 

Reese said he wanted to hear from the group about their function.

Stephens responded that the committee’s responsibility is established in the city’s governing document.

“The core principles are outlined in the charter itself,” she said. “We want to make sure there is a systemic way of really operationalizing equity within all aspects of how the City of Reno works.”  

Green infrastructure

Another proposal was for green infrastructure projects that can be authorized under local improvement law. 

The intent is to “emphasize the importance of the impacts of the urban heat island,” according to the charter proposal. 

As a part of the chief equity officer presentation, Coleman went on to say that most green spaces are in white neighborhoods, while communities of color face heat sinks and the ever increasing health issues associated with them. 

Current authorized projects include curb, gutter and drainage projects, off-street, overpass, park, sanitation, utility and water projects. 

Green infrastructure would become the 14th project type added to the list. 

Eliminating the sixth ward

As it stands, the city is scheduled to change from five wards to six wards in January 2024, and the at-large council position would be replaced with a ward council member. 

The proposed amendment by the committee would repeal the sections that would enact these changes, retaining the at-large council position as well as maintaining only five wards in the city. 

Reno council members accepted the committee’s report but made no promises. Next week’s city council meeting will consider bill draft requests to the Nevada Legislature in 2023, where changes proposed by the committee could appear.

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