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Racine City Council: Policy forum report 'missed the mark,' wants to talk disparities
Resilient Communities

Racine City Council: Policy forum report 'missed the mark,' wants to talk disparities

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RACINE — After a recap of the presentation on how communities east of Interstate 94 could collaborate on emergency services and parks and recreation, many of the members of the Racine City Council expressed disappointment.

Two weeks ago, the study was presented to officials from each of the municipalities at the Racine Theatre Guild, 2519 Northwestern Ave., as part of the Resilient Communities event. Since June 2017, the Resilient Communities initiative brought together representatives from communities east of I-94 to start conversations about how they can cooperate.

While several aldermen thanked the Wisconsin Policy Forum for conducting the study, many questioned the study’s priorities. A few spoke about its failure to address the biggest elephant in the region — that the area has been named the second-worst place for black people in the United States in term of disparities.

Alderman Jason Meekma of the 14th District was perhaps the most critical of the initiative and the results of the study.

“All I see is a pampering of the suburban communities and making sure they feel comfortable with the direction that we are going in,” Meekma said. “While we have to sit here as the City of Racine and continue to — by ourselves — find ways to solve a problem that faces the entire county. That’s disappointing.”

Challenging the premise

When asked why the study zeroed in on EMS service and parks and recreation, Rob Henken from the Wisconsin Policy Forum said it seemed a good starting point for collaboration. Henken said that the thinking was that if those collaborations had some “wins” they could then expand to the more complicated issues, but he could understand why EMS and parks weren’t high on the city’s priorities list.

“I’m not going to argue with you if you say, ‘Gee, it’s hard to think about sharing fire services when yes we have these really pressing problems facing our African American community here,’” Henken said.

Alderman Trevor Jung of the 9th District early in the meeting expressed optimism that the work so far would lead to those harder and more complicated discussions, but he stressed that they need to happen.

“Having our suburban partners be engaged in the discussion around racial inequality in a metro region that was ranked the second-worst place in the country for African Americans is critical for us,” Jung said. “I think that this study and engaging in conversation about how communities can work together to better deliver services and the Johnson Foundation bringing leaders together to have these discussions about how we can better work together to improve the quality of life is going to be crucial in terms of making sure we are off that list and a great place to live for everybody.”

Others were more skeptical, including Alderman Natalia Taft of the 13th District.

“My concern is what happens too often is we start where people are comfortable and we never get to where people are uncomfortable,” said Taft. “If we don’t have racial equity issues and social equity issues at the beginning, at the forefront, then we’re just never going to get there. I don’t think that it can be stressed enough that that needs to be a priority for the region, not just for the city.”

Taft listed several pressing issues the region could collaborate on that could address the area’s racial disparities, such as housing, transportation, job training and public health.

“I appreciate all this work and I think there’s some potential here but I have some real concerns about priorities,” she said.

Meekma pointed out that the idea to consolidate EMS and fire service and parks and recreation, has been around for a long time.

“Those are solutions we already knew were realistic and something we could pursue,” said Meekma. “That’s not new news that’s old news that we’re reframing in a new way.”

Alderman John Tate II from the 3rd District argued that instead of shying away from discussions about the region’s inequities, he would like to think the issue would bring the municipalities together.

“If we’re going to find some common ground, probably the easiest way to find common ground is having a significant portion of your population suffering,” said Tate. “I would hope that Caledonia, Mount Pleasant and Sturtevant would all think, ‘We don’t like that we’re the second-worst place for African Americans either.’ I would think the crisis of being ranked number two would bring those communities together.”

Mayor Cory Mason said that during the monthly resilient communities meetings he often brings up inequities and that he and City Administrator Jim Palenick plan to initiate some of the more challenging issues facing the region after the New Year.

Meekma continued to be skeptical.

“We cannot and we will not improve our resiliency until all our communities take responsibility for the greatest problem that we face,” Meekma said. “But we’re not having those conversations. Instead our ranking … keeps declining and we continue to face other issues in employment and equality and equity that continue to get worse. But by all means let’s keep talking about combining our police and fire and park and recs departments.”

“All I see is a pampering of the suburban communities and making sure they feel comfortable with the direction that we are going in. While we have to sit here as the City of Racine and continue to — by ourselves — find ways to solve a problem that faces the entire county. That’s disappointing.” Jason Meekma, Racine alderman

"All I see is a pampering of the suburban communities and making sure they feel comfortable with the direction that we are going in. While we have to sit here as the City of Racine and continue to — by ourselves — find ways to solve a problem that faces the entire county. That’s disappointing."

Jason Meekma, Racine alderman

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Christina Lieffring covers the City of Racine and the City of Burlington and is a not-bad photographer. In her spare time she tries to keep her plants and guinea pigs alive and happy.

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