The people who make up Newark’s boards and commissions – the ones who oversee elections, rule on zoning variances and advise city council on everything from development to environmental initiatives – are, as City Secretary Renee Bensley puts it, a “pretty white, pretty male, older population.”
On Monday, city council took the first steps toward diversifying the boards and commissions, approving Bensley’s recommendations for ways to encourage participation by a wider group of Newarkers.
“This is a no brainer,” Councilman Chris Hamilton said. “This is a move we have to make.”
Diversity of the city’s eight standing boards and commissions has been a topic of conversation for several years. In 2017, the Boards and Commissions Review Committee recommended putting in place a plan to increase the diversity, but council never acted on it and since then, the diversity has declined even more, Bensley said.
Earlier this month, the recent national conversation regarding systemic racism brought the issue to the forefront once again.
Bensley plans to conduct a survey of the existing board and commission members to determine the current demographics and then meet with community groups to better understand the barriers to serving.
Members of the boards and commissions are all nominated by a council member or the mayor and then voted on by the full council. However, finding the nominees is often a haphazard – and, at times, difficult – process for council members. Often, Bensley said, it comes down to council members reaching out to people they already know.
“When we have a leadership team in the city that looks the same, a lot of their networks start looking the same. And that means our boards and commissions start looking the same,” she said.
Bensley plans to standardize the process for soliciting candidates. Each open position will be posted online for a minimum of 45 days, and those interested would be encouraged to fill out an application. The council member responsible for the nomination will interview each applicant before making his or her final choice.
“We look at this initial recommendation tonight very much as a first step in an ongoing conversation and an ongoing process,” Bensley said.
After talking to community members, she plans to give council a report in September detailing barriers to participation and proposals to address them.
While some of the boards have specific qualifications – such as the Board of Adjustment, which requires applicants to have “knowledge and experience in urban and rural development problems,” – others like the Election Board, do not require any particular experience.
One obstacle could be the time commitment, some council members said. Most boards and commissions – which are all unpaid positions, except for the election board – meet monthly, and some require members to read through lengthy documents to prepare for meetings.
Last year, council weighed a proposal to provide board members with a monthly stipend and free meals but ultimately did not include it in the budget.
“If somebody needs some childcare, that might be a barrier. Perhaps a stipend might take away that barrier or might incentivize someone who might not otherwise be interested or available to serve on the planning commission,” Planning Director Mary Ellen Gray said at the time. “It’s a way to get as many different perspectives and as much diversity on the planning commission as possible because that best serves the city of Newark.”
Councilman Jason Lawhorn noted that council members sometimes have trouble finding people to nominate, and he welcomed a more open process.
“I think there are people out there that are willing to do it, we just need to reach them,” he said.
Hamilton noted that diversifying the boards and commissions could lead to a more diverse city council if board members gain familiarity with the government and later decide to run for office.
“Sometimes they’ll say, ‘Hey, I enjoy working with government, I enjoy making decisions,’” Hamilton said. “And that can be an excellent transition to get some more people into our government on a more diverse basis.”
In its entire history, Newark has had only one black council member – the local civil rights leader George Wilson, who was elected in the 1950s.
According to the latest census statistics, Newark is 73 percent white, 9 percent black, 8 percent Asian and 7 percent Hispanic or Latino.