Hampered by a rash of resignations, a Brookline commission that is charged with promoting racial harmony and monitoring diversity in the town’s workforce is calling for help from Town Meeting this week as the panel’s remaining members raise concerns about a lack of minorities in leadership positions.
But a former commission chairwoman says a lack of cooperation and respect among some of its members may have played a role in its dwindling numbers.
Members of a diversity subcommittee of Brookline’s Human Relations-Youth Resources Commission have submitted a resolution for consideration at Special Town Meeting on Tuesday asking that it urge selectmen to appoint three minority members, and fill a number of other vacancies on the 15-seat commission.
Without the appointments, the commission doesn’t have enough members to form a quorum, and is unable to vote at a time when members say they would like to address a complete lack of minorities in Brookline’s 26 department head positions.
“It is not our intention to give the town a black eye; we’re interested in bringing issues to the surface,” said Brooks Ames, a member of the commission who is cosponsoring the resolution before Town Meeting.
But Rita McNally, who served briefly as the commission’s interim chairwoman before resigning in August, said she stepped down in part because she didn’t want to put up with name-calling and disrespect showed by some commissioners who are only interested in their own agendas.
“It became disruptive — speaking out, yelling, ranting, just horribly stupid things,” said McNally.
The commission is now down to seven active members. Three of them — Ames, his wife, Mariela Ames, and Larry Onie — are sponsoring the nonbinding resolution going before Town Meeting seeking more appointments.
Their resolution says that three qualified candidates, one Latino and two black applicants, have been trying to get onto the commission since April, but the Board of Selectmen put a moratorium on making appointments.
Mariela Ames said that if the town does not appoint qualified minority members to the commission, she wonders how it can be counted on to address a lack of diversity in its workforce.
“To me it is a representation of how the town does not want to address the issue of race,” Mariela Ames said.
Selectmen say they deferred making appointments earlier this year because the town has set up a special committee, chaired by Selectwoman Nancy Daly, that is studying possible changes to the duties of the Human Relations-Youth Resources Commission.
Now that the commission no longer has enough members for a quorum, however, the Board of Selectmen has begun interviewing candidates to fill the volunteer seats, chairwoman Betsy DeWitt said.
Arthur Conquest, who is African-American and is one of the three candidates with applications pending for the commission since April, said he is seeking to be a commissioner so he can work to ensure “everybody gets a chance to grab at the brass ring.”
Conquest, who is also an elected Town Meeting member, said the town needs to address its “racist behavior.” He said he has concerns about a firefighter who was recently promoted despite a discrimination complaint that accused him of making a racial slur, and about the lack of diversity in the town’s leadership positions.
“There is no reason for the town to have 26 white department heads — it is sick,” said Conquest.
Daly said the study committee she is chairing is looking at diversity issues and what role the Human Relations-Youth Resources Commission should have. She said substantial changes to the commission’s current charge will likely be recommended to Town Meeting at next spring’s annual session.
“Certainly some people are trying to give the impression that the town is racist or something,” Daly said. “I don’t think that is true. Could we do a better job through recruiting more diverse candidates for our job openings? Yes, I think we could.”
The Human Relations-Youth Resources Commission was created in 1970, but since then, DeWitt said, many of its duties, such as providing youth resources, have shifted elsewhere, and other duties are now being handled by a human resources department and board established by the town more than a decade ago.
While changes are being contemplated for the commission, DeWitt said, Brookline is “aggressively recruiting” minorities for positions that would allow the town to mentor them into seniority positions. DeWitt said that while there are not any people of color serving as department heads, the town has succeeded in hiring women for leadership jobs in recent years that had always been held by white men.
Sandra Debow, the director of the town’s Human Resources Office, said in an e-mail that the majority of the town’s department and division heads have worked for Brookline for more than 20 years, and the town is expecting a steady stream of retirements in the next five to 10 years.
Debow said she’s confident that the town will see more diversity in race and ethnicity in the town’s senior administration in the “near future, as positions open up due to retirement and attrition.”
But Brooks Ames said that the lack of hiring of minorities for leadership positions is one of the main reasons the commission needs enough members to have a quorum. He said that in recent years Brookline has hired a number of department heads from outside the town, from the fire chief to the town administrator to the planning director hired over the summer, and the town didn’t hire a single person of color for a leadership position.
Brooks Ames said the commission can help the town identify candidates, and pointed out that search committees that have a person of color as a member may lead to a better list of candidates.
“What the commission can do is just keep diversity on the agenda,” Brooks Ames said.
But McNally said when she was on the commission, Brooks and Mariela Ames and Larry Onie only wanted to talk about racism on the police force or in the town, and no other work could get done.
“The main loudmouth would be Larry Onie,” McNally said. “He wasn’t able to grasp the importance of doing things in a conciliatory way, being respectful, having a little bit of dignity. ”
McNally, 80, said that Onie called her, among other things, anti-Semitic, antiblack, sexist, and an ageist. She said all the charges are unfounded.
Onie said that he e-mailed McNally about remarks she had made outside public meetings that he considered to be sexist, racist, ageist, and anti-Semitic, and he asked to talk to her about the situation but they never did. He also said that while she served as interim chairwoman she wasn’t responsive to his request to get items put on the agenda.
“She wasn’t following the spirit of the commission,” Onie said.
Brooks Ames said that when he interviewed with selectmen to join the commission last year, he said he was interested in investigating discrimination, and advising selectmen on workforce diversity.
But Ames said he doesn’t recall an instance in which anybody on the commission brought forward an agenda item that he or his wife or Onie said they couldn’t address because they were too busy focusing on discrimination or diversity. “It’s not really consistent with my recollection of the last year or so,” he said.
DeWitt said that selectmen have been concerned by resignations from the commission, but when asked whether the board had an understanding of why commissioners were stepping down, she declined to comment.
Onie said he’s optimistic that selectmen will soon make appointments to the commission, and he and fellow members can work on trying to change the culture of the Brookline town government.
“Frankly, I think we’re going to be able to do it if we get these critical appointments,” he said.