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Lebanon plans to create diversity commission

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/8/2021 9:29:41 PM
Modified: 7/8/2021 9:29:50 PM

LEBANON — City officials say they intend to create a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Commission to advise Lebanon on matters regarding race and sex regardless of warnings that the group’s efforts could conflict with a state law that opponents worry will limit discussions about systemic racism.

The Lebanon City Council voted Wednesday night to schedule a Wednesday, July 21 public hearing on the proposed commission, a step that’s required for changes to the city code.

If passed, the nine-member group could start work promoting training and educational programs, and offering guidance on ways the city can create a “safe, welcoming and inclusive” community this fall.

Councilors say they expect the measure to have broad support and pass easily. However, they’re less certain about the challenges it might face following the vote.

City Manager Shaun Mulholland said last week that a legal review raised questions about whether conversations stemming from the commission could run afoul of the state’s two-year budget, which includes prohibitions on teaching children that they’re inferior, racist, sexist or oppressive by virtue of their race, gender or other characteristics.

Democrats, businesses and school districts have criticized the so-called “divisive concepts” measure, saying it could prevent implicit bias training and halt efforts to educate people about structural racism and sexism.

But Lebanon Mayor Tim McNamara said Thursday that giving the city’s minority population a greater voice in local government trumps any trouble that might come from the new law.

“I think this gives us a way to reach out to them, get their opinions and make them feel like they have some real input into the system,” he said in a phone interview.

Nearly 90% of Lebanon’s 13,623 population is white, while more than 6% identifies as Asian and a little more than 2% is Black, according to the 2019 American Community Survey.

“We’re going to move forward, and we’ll obviously be doing some research but we’re headed to a public hearing on the 21st,” McNamara added.

The state law is part of a national backlash led by Republican politicians against “critical race theory,” a way of thinking about America’s history through the lens of racism.

New Hampshire is among six states that have attempted to ban the teaching, even though there’s little to no evidence that critical race theory itself is being taught to K-12 public school students

Still, city councilors said they don’t believe New Hampshire’s measure will hold up in court, and some pointed to a statement from Attorney General John Formella — who said the law doesn’t prohibit the creation of Lebanon’s commission or members from carrying out its duties and responsibilities — as further reassurance that Lebanon won’t face sanctions.

While officials are cognizant of the law, “the city’s position on the matter is quite clear, that we will move forward with this commission,” said Councilor George Sykes.

“It’s premature to be changing anything that the city does at this point,” said Sykes, a Democrat who also represents Lebanon in the House.

While city officials appear confident with forming the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Commission, other communities are struggling to make sense of the new law, said Margaret Byrnes, executive director of the New Hampshire Municipal Association.

She said the provision is so vague that some towns and cities are examining whether their staff training, educational programs or even school curriculum could be in violation.

And when local officials call the NHMA asking for advice, they’re told to seek legal opinions, Byrnes said,

“I can only imagine that there will be more and more questions about what the law means as time goes by,” she said, adding that an official interpretation from Formella might clear things up.

Whatever hurdles Lebanon might face, John Hall, chairman of the Hartford Committee on Racial Equity and Inclusion, said he’s glad the city is moving forward to form its commission.

“I think I’m overall very encouraged by the proposal and hope it does make it through the hearing process and get voted in,” he said.

Hall went on to offer two pieces of advice. He said it’s important that the commission’s membership is made up of people who can work collaboratively together and that, if possible, school officials should have a voice in discussions.

Hartford’s committee reports to both the Selectboard and School Board.

“It gives the boards themselves a chance to collaborate and kind of join forces in finding out where the needs of the community are,” he said.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.




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