Juneau committee reviewing systemic racism in new laws makes first recommendations to city

More than 400 people attended a rally in support of black community members and black people nationwide on the 11th day of protests against police violence and systemic racism following the death of George Floyd who was killed while being taken into custody by Minneapolis Police in late May. After marching from Marine Park to the roundabout on Douglas Island, demonstrators threw hundreds of flowers into Gastineau Channel during a rally on Saturday, June 6, 2020, in Juneau, Alaska. The event was not advertised and instead spread by word-of-mouth through the community. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)
More than 400 people attended a rally in Juneau in support of black community members and black people on June 6, 2020, following the death of George Floyd in  Minneapolis. The Juneau Assembly created its Systemic Racism Review Committee in the aftermath of racial reckonings across the nation. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

The advisory committee that the Juneau Assembly put together to flag systemic racism in its legislation has begun making formal recommendations. So far, the committee has officially finished reviews of 11 pieces of legislation.

The committee hasn’t flagged anything actionable yet, but there are early signs that the group may be shaping how city policies get made.

The Juneau Assembly created the committee last year, amid the racial reckonings across the country. The six-person panel met for the first time back in April. Over the last six months, members went through a sort of crash course on what the City and Borough of Juneau does and what typical ordinances and resolutions look like. And it wrote a questionnaire for city staffers to help evaluate them.

The questionnaire asks things like, who would the legislation impact? What are some unintended consequences? Are there ways to gauge if there is inequality?

Now, the committee is reviewing the Assembly’s legislation as it comes up. It’s mostly been housekeeping measures that have to do with accounting.

One exception? The committee reviewed an ordinance to use $24,000 of grant funding to survey and inventory buildings in a particular downtown neighborhood. Planners from the city’s Community Development Department who worked on it took committee members’ questions.

“How was it that this area that we’re talking about was selected?” committee member Grace Lee asked.

The planners explained. There’s a long thread that eventually leads up to a Juneau Assembly goal to increase the availability of housing in Juneau. The building survey is required for an application to get the neighborhood added to the National Register of Historic Places. Which would give the owners of about 87 buildings new opportunities for tax credits and renovation grants. Which might nudge those owners to rehab vacant space in those buildings, and turn them into downtown housing.

“One thing that would be helpful in a situation like this is to see maybe the breakdown of the races of the homeowners,” Lee told the planners.

There is census data. But that’s for residents. There is no easy way to get race data for the property owners who would most directly benefit.

Planner Alex Pierce offered the committee one more unknown.

“It’s hard to know who the beneficiaries will be in the future, and how that might change the racial makeup of the neighborhood,” she said. “We don’t have good answers to that. But it’s certainly another consideration, and another piece of this to muddle through.”

Before, staffers and policymaking officials rarely discussed race and equity. Now, the Systemic Racism Review Committee forces city staffers to think about and discuss race and equity before the Juneau Assembly votes on something.

Lisa Worl, the committee chair, said the limited information gives her some concern and anxiousness.

“I would like to have a lot more data available. So hopefully that’s something we will continue to build on,” Worl said. “As we continue to work through, these are areas I can see that may be a challenge — not just this particular ordinance, but for many.”

The committee gave the ordinance a thumbs up. It also sent the Assembly a recommendation to gather more race data about neighborhoods affected by legislation in the future.

In related news, one of the Systemic Racism Review Committee’s original members resigned last month. David Russell-Jensen said he just had too many commitments to keep up with.

People interested in serving can apply through the city’s boards and commissions website.

Jeremy Hsieh

Local News Reporter, KTOO

I dig into questions about the forces and institutions that shape Juneau, big and small, delightful and outrageous. What stirs you up about how Juneau is built and how the city works?

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