When the six Durango City Council candidates described how they would handle the city’s top goal – expanding its diversity, equity and inclusion work – they focused on continuing the city’s educational efforts.
The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, and resulting nationwide police reform protests, spurred the city of Durango into action. The majority of seats on City Council, three of five, are up for grabs during the April 6 election. Five candidates would be newcomers to the council; one, Melissa Youssef, is running as an incumbent.
The next City Council will play a key role in shaping those actions over the next four years.
All six candidates said they supported the city’s actions thus far during interviews with The Durango Herald.
Durango staff leadership responded to community calls for action by adding translation services to the city website and budgeting for an affirmative action program, sidewalk accessibility projects and a diversity, equity and inclusion position in the Human Resources Department.
The city also joined the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, a national network that provides services and training for governments.
Durango City Council responded to community calls for action by listing inclusive policies and services as one of its top five goals for 2021. That meant identifying root causes of inequities, both among staff members and in the community, and finding solutions.
Positions were filled on the city’s Community Relations Commission, including a newly created council liaison position filled by Councilor Barbara Noseworthy.
Candidates acknowledged the need to keep up those projects.
Frank Lockwood, a retired attorney, said it is “absolutely true” that white people of European descent are insensitive to the experiences and histories of Indigenous cultures and communities of color.
“There’s no doubt. That’s basically a proven fact,” Lockwood said.
Jessika Buell, a local business owner, and Olivier Bosmans, a project manager and environmental health consultant, said the city’s actions were important and appropriate.
Harrison Wendt, a youth camp coordinator who has made diversity and inclusion a hallmark of his campaign, applauded the city’s actions so far. Wendt’s campaign recently stumbled after he admitted to lifting language verbatim from Black political leaders in his hometown, Minneapolis, and using some of it for his campaign website.
Seth Furtney, a former engineering contracts manager, cautioned that progress will take time.
“This is a generational discussion. Can I get rid of bias? No, I can be attentive to it. I can be aware of it, and I can try to caution the continuance of it,” Furtney said. “This is something you need to continually attend to.”
Melissa Youssef, the incumbent candidate with a finance background, said City Council has made diversity, equity and inclusion the No. 1 priority.
“In the past, I think we’ve had homogenous, relatively few groups at the table and represented,” Youssef said. “What we’re trying to do now, organizationwide, is include a broader constituency base with more divergent perspectives in all of the work we do.”
Their answers started to differ when asked, if elected, what action they would take to further those goals.
Youssef, Furtney and Bosmans said they would continue current efforts, particularly the work of the Community Relations Commission.
The commission acts as a liaison between community members and City Council.
It is made up of five volunteers and is one of the only advisory groups to have a budget, $3,000.
In the past, it has facilitated listening sessions during which community members have come forward with experiences of prejudice and discrimination against communities of color, members of the LGBTQ community and immigrants.
Youssef said the city also needs to invest in community partnerships, and Furtney said it needs to explore diversity trainings for the Durango Police Department.
“The Community Relations Commission has done a good job. They have their Civility First Pledge Program,” Bosmans said. “There’s a lot of things that can be done, but communication is one of the top ones.”
Lockwood advocated for more education about “Eurocentric histories with racist components.”
“Can we correct that with our hiring practices or the way we communicate? I think that’s the positive way to go,” Lockwood said. “I just think we ought to move forward deliberately and cautiously.”
Buell focused on funding for the police department so it could invest in partnerships and training for responding to mental health and equity issues.
“That really is a progressive, forward-thinking police department,” Buell said.
Wendt is the only candidate who said his decision to run was prompted by the social and police reform protests during 2020. He also casts himself as someone who can represent the working class in Durango and who would focus on uplifting marginalized populations, like communities of color and people with disabilities.
He advocated for repealing Durango’s no-sit, no-lie ordinance. The ordinance is still in effect, but it is enforced at the discretion of the police officer performing the investigation, according to the Durango Police Department.
Wendt also said it would be “critical” to expand mobile crisis response teams within the police department, which can respond to emergency calls related to mental health and substance use.
“I think we need to see more equity in our public safety and our justice system,” he said.
Wendt admitted to quoting Black leaders without attribution. He updated his website and issued an apology, saying, “Using words from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) leaders for personal gain without proper credit is harmful. And displays the same characteristics of racism and white supremacist cores that we’ve seen for centuries. As always, growth starts with taking accountability.”