By Ana Mulero
Special to The Sentinel
ROCKVILLE – On Nov. 19, The Montgomery County Council passed an economic development resolution and enacted a legislative instrument for the county government to address issues of racial equity and social justice.
Montgomery County Council President Nancy Navarro drove the efforts behind both legislative measures, known as the new county Economic Development Platform and the Racial Equity and Social Justice Act. The former is a strategic framework intended to position the county in terms of economic development better, whereas the enacted bill is aimed at dismantling structural barriers that have led to disparities underpinned by the rooted history of the county.
The new economic development resolution interfaces with the new bill in that racial equity and social justice are “also an economic issue because we are losing so much through the fact that there are still so many disparities that rob the potential of many in our county,” Navarro argued.
The council passed the resolution unanimously.
The focus of the new platform, introduced on Nov. 12 with County Executive Marc Elrich, is four-fold. It includes housing, transportation, workforce development and business development. Each pillar puts forth guiding principles.
The guiding principle of the housing quadrant looks to increase affordable housing. It states that the council will strive to meet the housing targets that the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments recommends, with an emphasis on the construction of additional affordable housing.
Under transportation, the council will prioritize funding to increase ridership in non-automobile transportation modes, activate the county’s economic centers and enhance current road systems to decrease commute times.
For business development, the guiding principle states that the council will invest in opportunities that can help decrease the cost of doing business in the county, promote its business and business climate, facilitate the attraction and retention of strategic industries and expand entrepreneurial programs and services to create businesses.
The guiding principle as it relates to workforce development states that the “council will expand the workforce development delivery structure to meet the needs of the county’s businesses and residents across the entire workforce development continuum,” said Navarro.
“By that, we mean that we will prioritize all of the different industry needs, as well as our workforce needs and the needs of our residents, from technical or certificate kinds of jobs all the way to post-doc jobs,” Navarro said.
The council’s committees will report an action plan for each pillar by February 11, 2020. Navarro noted these documents would capture everything that current and past councils and executives have done to identify barriers, gaps or best practices thus and achieve the desired outcomes.
Afterward, the council unanimously enacted the Racial Equity and Social Justice Act, with certain amendments approved to provisions such as those on the definition of the term “social justice.”
With an annual budget of $375,860, the bill will establish a new Office of Racial Equity and Social Justice in the executive branch and create a program on racial equity and social justice.
A new Office of Racial Equity and Social Justice Advisory Committee and its duties will be established under the bill, also. The committee will be comprised of eight public members, with a new $2,000 annual stipend, and seven members representing the county department or agencies.
The bill, which was co-sponsored by all nine members of the county council, charges each department in the county government with developing racial equity and social justice action plan of their own. Councilmember Will Jawando also stressed the need for continued accountability.
“The offices that will be setting up the staff that we’ll be hiring are going to need the continued engagement and support and pushing of the advocacy community and residents at large,” Jawando said.
The enactment of the new bill comes after the council held events, which began in March, with members of the community on issues of racial equity and social justice. The three community conversations saw more than 10,000 people in participation and provided a snapshot of the community to develop a toolkit for many other discussions to take place subsequently.
Navarro noted that the bill is an instrument that can allow local government to have data and better address disparities among racial groups both legislatively and via budgetary decisions.
Councilmember Gabe Albornoz, who previously served as director of the Department of Recreation, pointed to when Title 1 schools, institutions impacted by poverty that receive customized support through grants, retained previously allocated funds for afterschool programs while not adding more funding for more affluent schools as an example of the difficult budgetary decisions that the council officials made during the 2008-2009 recession.
The decision to retain the funding for schools with higher concentrations of low-income students was made because “it was the right thing to do,” Albornoz said, noting that future councils and executives can now take into account the new bill when making budgetary decisions of this kind.
The action will also impact “civic participation in political campaigns because it will not be enough to say we care about diversity,” Navarro said. “We will have to make sure the candidates articulate exactly how they are going to address these issues,” she added.