Submitted by Ryan N. Mello, Pierce County Council Chair.
On Tuesday, Sept. 26, the majority of the Pierce County Council voted to create a Commission on Equity. The idea for this commission came from an Equity Review Committee formed with bipartisan support in the summer of 2021 and championed by Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier. After a year of work reviewing the county’s policies, procedures, and best practices employed throughout our justice system and general county government with a focus on equity, they came back with one single recommendation. That recommendation was to establish a permanent Commission on Equity.
Equity, in this context, is a deliberate and meaningful effort to provide proportionate and culturally competent government services to meet the needs of our community members, and not all those needs are the same. It also means reviewing and adjusting systems, policies, and practices that unintentionally harm a group of people – as the Executive’s Criminal Justice Workgroup has found in our justice system. To form policies that increase access and promote diversity of thought and experience, we need subject matter experts and people with real-life experiences to help inform us of the need. Everyone benefits when we have equity.
So, on Sept. 26, when the bill to establish a permanent Commission on Equity, came to the full Council for a vote, I was deeply disappointed and disheartened the vote came down on party lines. In 2022 and 2023, there was a general consensus among the Council that enhancing equity in county government was something we should strive for. I was even more disheartened and troubled on Monday when I received notification that Executive Dammeier had vetoed Ordinance No. 2023-36, the bill creating the Commission. Executive Dammeier and I do not always agree on everything, but on the work of enhancing equity, I thought we stood shoulder to shoulder.
Despite how this has all unfolded, I still know the Executive and my Council colleagues agree that no matter your income level, race, or background, everyone deserves a government that values them and provides services in a manner that meets their diverse needs. I can only surmise that a vocal minority working to spread harmful disinformation about equity work clouded their judgment. The culture war emerging around the country by some to politicize diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts is harmful to this work of delivering effective county government to everyone. We must not succumb to the devolving weaponization of equity.
Equity is not equality – that is the point. One group of people may need language interpretation to access government services. Another group might need streetlights to improve safety in their neighborhood, while another group needs mental health professionals to ride along with Sheriff’s deputies to meet their needs. Needs are different, and equity is about tailoring the services to the need, not delivering the same thing to everyone regardless of whether they need it or not.
There is a policy debate to be had on how we best enhance equity, and a Commission on Equity could have really helped inform that conversation. There is a long tradition in Pierce County of forming commissions where community members can lend their passion and experience to advise their county government. It has worked well, which is why the County has over 40 of these advisory bodies on issues ranging from agriculture to transportation needs, to how we invest funds to improve behavioral health outcomes.
That is another reason County Executive Bruce Dammeier’s veto message was so troubling. In it, he acknowledges the need to improve equity, and yet describes the very people who could help inform those efforts as an unnecessary “new bureaucratic structure to talk about this work.” I’m concerned Executive Dammeier believes our other commissions, like the Commission on Refugee and Immigrant Affairs (the most recently created Commission), don’t yield anything tangible or beneficial. These are people who give their time, talents, and perspectives to help advise their elected leaders and county staff on decisions relating to resource allocation and generally making policies better informed. I believe Pierce County is always well-served when the public has a voice on matters that affect their neighborhoods and communities that otherwise may go unnoticed.
Equitable government is smart, informed government. Pierce County would have been better off creating a Commission on Equity, so our government could hear from the people who understand this first-hand, as we do in so many other areas. Executive Dammeier had every opportunity to raise any concerns during this very public process but chose not to. This Council has proven time and again we are willing to work together on consensus building and ways to solve the challenges facing our community.
Despite the veto, I am committed to ensuring all Pierce County residents are able to thrive, knowing their government values their background and experiences and recognizes the challenges their communities may face. We must lessen unfair barriers so all people can succeed, no matter their zip code, race, income level, language spoken, or gender. This Council will look for every way to do this in our budget development and future policy work.