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Decatur Diary | December 7, 2015

“Now the Real Work Begins:” Community Action Plan accepted by City Commission

Decatur’s city commission accepted the comprehensive draft of the Better Together Community Action Plan Monday evening, bringing to a close a process that, outside 2010’s extensive Strategic Plan, brought more people to the table than any Decatur effort in the past 15 years.

Within its pages can be found an ambitious list of neighbor-initiated ideas for making Decatur a more fair, welcoming, and inclusive city across a diverse range of focus areas, including community engagement, affordable housing, public space, transportation, and law enforcement.

Each focus area has its own recommendations for supportive action. Police Chief Mike Booker, one of the Better Together organizers, has previously addressed the effort’s contribution to policing with his take on the practical value of more open communication.

“As a department, we’re most effective when we have the trust of the community,” he noted. “We’ve got good people working every day to earn and build that trust so if there’s any area where we seem to be coming up short, we need to know that. That’s why I’ve participated in Better Together and why we’ve done some other things internally. It’s helped me view our efforts through more eyes. And that’s only going to make us stronger.”

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The Process

After months of planning by its volunteer organizing committee, the effort peaked with a five hour community conversation last August, where hundreds of residents seated in small groups shared their perspectives on a host of diversity-related issues, then listened as others did the same.

From that conversation and the community surveys that informed it came 625 ideas for how Decatur might better embrace and foster diversity in all forms, thereafter distilled to roughly 70 action items that were subjected to community review in November. The public comments that resulted then informed the ultimate, lightly edited recommendations presented tonight to the commission.

The plan’s recommendations for action run the gamut, with many falling to residents and community partners rather than the city itself. The idea is that maintaining and fostering a diverse community is not something government alone can do, nor something civic organizations alone can do, nor something each of us as individuals can do. But together, a broad array of civic-minded efforts on all fronts can add up to an impact greater than the sum of its respective parts.

Reaction

As to be expected in any community that values and supports diversity, opinions — even opinions on a diversity fostering proposal — are destined to be mixed.

Resident Hans Utz drove this point home, supporting the process overall but stressing the importance of further pursuing what he called “uncomfortable” conversations. “We should continue to pursue this path to diversity,” he said, “but that also means hearing from voices you may not want to hear from.”

Chris Billingsley, who’s been an ongoing Better Together participant, expressed his general opposition to how the process has been orchestrated, punctuated with his concerns that recommendations within the plan will “weaken the effectiveness of police officers in the field.”

Don Denard, whose perceived experience with police racial profiling helped shape the Better Together process, spoke of working directly with police chief Booker as members of the organizing committee. Referencing other communities currently struggling with contentious police/community relations rooted in issues of race, he said “we have the opportunity to be smarter than that; to be proactive.”

Deanne Thomas echoed Mr. Billingsley’s comments about the police while also voicing concerns over the degree to which outreach efforts connected with and engaged various groups, particularly the elderly. “Actions are not matching what we say the intent of this plan is,” she said, imploring the commission to take “sincere and intentional actions on how we enact it going forward.”

Speaking in support of the effort was Doug Faust, executive director of the Decatur Housing Authority, who praised what he found to be “great outreach” to the city’s public housing residents.

Former Mayor Elizabeth Wilson, speaking as a “senior helping seniors, especially with taxes” spoke of her support for the housing affordability recommendations included in the plan, as did Anne Morris, chair of the city’s Lifelong Community Advisory Board.

Finally, noting that “Now the real work begins — as individuals, organizations, and all of us working together,” Mayor Baskett suggested acceptance of the plan as Mayor Pro Tem Garrett noted the extensive information in the plan’s appendices and how such a broad collection of resident input can help guide the commission as they move forward on any particular initiative or action step.

What’s Next?

The plan’s content, accepted as is by the commission, will now be formatted into a formally laid-out document. Look for release of that early in the new year.

Action on any particular item thereafter will, like any city initiative, require commission approval and go-ahead, at which time residents will again have opportunity to speak.

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