WalletHub named Rockville as the one of America’s most diverse cities in 2016 based on social class, ethnicity, economics, and households. It ranked 14 out of 301, being bested by our neighbors in Gaithersburg (#1), Silver Spring (#4), Germantown (#5), and Frederick (#8), but ranked higher than places usually lauded for their diversity, such as San Francisco (#20), Alexandria, VA (#45), Denver (#67), San Antonio (#119), and Seattle (#149).
On Monday, March 6, the Rockville Mayor and Council will hold a public hearing on the role of the City Police in the enforcement of federal immigration laws. Will Rockville’s diversity be celebrated or feared? Will immigrants be threatened or welcomed? Will the answers be quickly forthcoming or will they become mired in bureaucracy? It’s uncertain where the City of Rockville will land and I suspect it will be a tense and difficult conversation.
It’s a conversation that started shortly after the Presidential election. Mayor Newton read a statement at the start of the City Council meeting on November 14, 2016 to recognize that Rockville’s strengths are “born of a tapestry: a tapestry of race, religion, creed, ethnicity, physical and mental abilities, sexual orientation and culture” and that “we support and defend the right of all individuals to live their lives in peace and safety, with dignity and respect.” Later in the meeting under Old/New Business, Councilmember Palakovich-Carr introduced a resolution (which is more serious than a statement) to “celebrate Rockville’s vibrant diversity and call upon elected officials at all levels of government to recognize that our nation is stronger because of this diversity, and call upon them to strive for policies and laws that promote equality and inclusion.” Councilmember Pierzchala immediately showed his support by seconding the motion and noting the recent incidents of racial violence documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Councilmember Feinberg, on the other hand, expressed her concern that the resolution was “venturing into partisan politics” and that while she didn’t object to the content, she objected that it was “thrust in front of us” and that City Council “did not get it by email or [have] any advance knowledge of this proclamation.” Palakovich-Carr responded that she shared the resolution with everyone on City Council the previous Wednesday via email; Pierzchala noted that three councilmembers asked in advance to have the resolution added to the agenda; and Newton admitted that it was supposed to be included on the agenda but somehow fell off. Councilmember Onley observed that “we don’t have to be partisan to stand for peace and equality” and that the City Council should “stand together as a city, with our citizens, against any acts of hatred.” Newton, Olney, Palakovich-Carr, and Pierzchala voted to support the resolution while Feinberg abstained. Every member on today’s City Council had ancestors, if they lived in the United States in the 19th century, that were targets of racial hatred and violence—although it seems one councilmember was more concerned about maintaining the bureaucracy than safeguarding the city’s diversity.
Out in the community, a town hall meeting on diversity on February 9 attracted a standing-room only crowd of more than 150 people (a review of the meeting available at Rockville View). Ben Shnider of King Farm started an online petition at Change.org to urge the Rockville Mayor and Council to swiftly enact a strong “Sanctuary City” law that has over one thousand signatures. On the other side of the issue, Brigitta Mullican, vice president of the Rockville Sister City Corporation, launched a “say no to sanctuary city” petition that’s attracted nearly 400 signers (although many are from outside Rockville). She’s concerned that a “Sanctuary City” status won’t stop the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement from deporting undocumented immigrants in Rockville and instead will attract undocumented immigrants, gangs, and drug traffickers. For a scholarly perspective on this issue, check out “Undocumented Immigrants as Perceived Criminal Threat” by Xia Wang in Criminology (August 2102).
At this point, the discussion about diversity seems to be stuck in platitudes and opinions about the “melting pot” and “all of us are immigrants”. Diversity has to be manifested in inclusion. One way to measure the inclusion of the community’s diverse citizenry is to examine Rockville’s elected and appointed officials.
The voters of Rockville have expressed their support for diversity through the composition of the Mayor and Council. It’s remarkable that the majority are women—a long way from the attitudes that prevailed a generation ago. It’s another story, however, on the city’s boards and commissions, particularly the Planning Commission, Historic District Commission, and Board of Appeals. These “Land Use Commissions” are the most powerful of the 24 that exist in the city because they can make decisions about private property independent of the Mayor and Council. So, how well do the people who serve on them represent the diversity of the community? Rockville has slightly more women than men, which is very close to the national average. Almost two-thirds of the city’s Land Use Commissions, on the other hand, consist of men—it’s seriously out of whack.
If you compare the ethnicity of the community to the Land Use Commissions, the disparity is even more stark. Nearly 90 percent of the Land Use Commissioners are whites. While a significant proportion of the city is Asian and Hispanic, they are woefully under-represented. African American representation seems to track closely to the community, but it’s only due to the persistent presence of Anita Neal Powell, who has served on the Historic District Commission for nearly twenty years. No other African Americans have found a seat on the Land Use Commissions.
These disparities can be immediately addressed because the Mayor nominates who serves on every seat on every board and commission. As of January 26, nineteen vacancies exist, four of them on the Land Use Commissions. Urge the City Council to do more than talk about diversity and to involve our diverse community in a meaningful and significant way by appointing women, African-Americans, Asians, and Hispanics to the Planning Commission, Historic District Commission, and other boards and commission. Right now, it’s pretty much a white men’s club. Write the Mayor and Council, speak at a City Council meeting during Community Forum, express your opinions at the March 6 public hearing, or call the City Clerk’s office at (240) 314-8280. Voters expressed their preferences for the Mayor and Council, and they can do the same for city boards and commissions.