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Diversity a hot topic at city retreat

COVINGTON -- Diversity in the city's work force became the topic of a tense but restrained discussion among City Council members at their Strategic Planning Retreat at The Oaks on Monday.

Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams brought up the issue, saying that the city's staff does not adequately represent the diversity in the population.

"Our city and county have changed tremendously. The demographics have changed," Williams said, noting that she wasn't just referring to race, but to gender and cultural considerations. "It behooves us to be in line with that change whether we want to or not. Minorities, females, people with other cultures are severely lacking in city departments."

Williams said though Covington is a certified City of Ethics by the Georgia Municipal Association, "We're not living up to it, if the faces (of city employees) don't match the population."

"Many people in this community feel there's a wall because they feel there is a stigma attached to the city's hiring," she said.

Williams suggested putting up information about employment opportunities or bid opportunities at the new Nelson Heights Community Center and helping people through the process of applying or qualifying.

But other council members said while a diverse work force is important, they don't agree the city is responsible for recruiting applicants.

"Do we as an institution have the responsibility to go out there and knock on doors and say 'Would you like to bid on this? Would you like to bid on this?' No that is not our responsibility," said Councilman Mike Whatley. "We can't do things to sway the diversity of our work force or diversity of our bidding process."

Whatley said the city follows a legal process when it comes to soliciting bids, which are evaluated based on established criteria. Likewise, the city can't search out a certain demographic to apply for jobs, he said.

"We have employed every tool and precaution to assure that everything is available to everybody that is qualified," he said. "I'm not a proponent of hiring Joe to fill a position just because he's got a Mohawk and we don't have anybody who's got a Mohawk."

Councilwoman Janet Goodman said it's the council's responsibility to investigate such claims from the

public and correct misperceptions.

"Just because somebody comes and says something, you can't just get on that bandwagon with them. You have to go and find out and then explain to them," she said.

"I'm just as black as you are," she later said to Williams. "I was in the Civil Rights movement ... but (City Manager) Steve (Horton), (Mayor) Kim Carter and (Human Resources Director) Ronnie Cowan break their necks to make sure things are done in the proper way. They're color blind. They always have been."

Councilwoman Ocie Franklin said the council must remember it represents the entire city, including those who may not have the means or ability or will to get out of their circumstances.

But Carter said sometimes it's necessary to keep separate empathy from the role of council member.

"I'm empathetic so I volunteer with nonprofits, but when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars, we can't do that," Carter said, noting that the city's charter prohibits that type of hiring practice.

Horton said that while the city must abide by the law in its hiring practices, "I do think diversity is something we ought to strive for in all that we do." While it's illegal for the city to take race into consideration when hiring, it can expand recruitment efforts, he said.

Positions are advertised in the local newspapers and on PEG channels, but the city could also place notices at community centers, churches and colleges, Horton said, and try to do a better job getting the word out about how to qualify to be on vendor lists. Applicants would still be judged on qualifications, but that would "cast a wider net," Horton said.

Williams said she didn't want to offend anyone, but that she ran for office to represent people who are least likely to be represented.

"I am empathetic and I am emotional and I care about people, not just black people, white people or green people -- about people. That's what drives my engine," she said.

Facilitator Frank Foster of the Centre for Strategic Management in Conyers, said he was impressed with the group's passion.

"If this group had no passion you'd have groupthink, and then you'd be a waste of taxpayer dollars if you all agreed," he said. "At some point, you have to be an advocate for certain groups, and sometimes, people have to step up themselves."

The Strategic Planning Retreat is a follow-up to planning meetings held in March. The retreat took place Friday and Monday and will continue today, with the council expected to set a strategic focus for the city for 2011-2014.