Shelburne’s newly formed equity and diversity committee wants to hire a consultant, but the town’s selectboard first wants to know what it’ll get for its money.

That’s the question the selectboard asked members of the equity and diversity committee at a Nov. 9 budget meeting where the group made a funding pitch in the upcoming fiscal year’s budget.

This is the new committee’s first-ever budget request and the lion’s share of it is $15,000 for an equity and diversity consultant of a total ask of $17,500 for fiscal year 2022.

The money represents year one of a three-year budget ask totaling $45,000.

“I totally support what you’re trying to accomplish, but I’m having a hard time seeing exactly what we’re paying for in terms of the scope of work being provided, so I’m not sure I get the problem,” chair Michael Ashooh said.

And that, equity and diversity members say, is exactly the problem, and drives home their point why Shelburne needs a diversity consultant. It’s hard to identify the scope of the problem until the town determines how inequitable its policies and procedures really are.

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” committee member Wanda Morgan told the board.

The committee doesn’t want a consultant locked into results dictated by the town, Morgan said. While it is important to outline what the town wants, it’s equally important not be so restrictive that it prevents a thorough examination of inequitable town processes and procedures.

“Unlike a pothole or a water system that’s not working, the issues of inequity are often invisible because those who are most marginalized usually don’t have the voice” to explain what those issues are, committee member Patricia Fontaine said.

The town needs a skilled person who understands and recognizes where inequity might exist in town government, hiring practices and other areas. Such an examination usually begins with an audit of all the voices that make up all aspects of town operations, Fontaine said.

Besides giving the town “a different lens” on how it operates and what sorts of equity and diversity challenges it faces, a consultant will conduct training for town department heads, the selectboard, the town manager and “whoever else that the town decides needs to have this training,” said officer Josh Flore of the Shelburne Police Department, who is also a member of the equity and diversity committee.

Fontaine said the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and every town the committee has talked to about how an equity and diversity committee should work has said it used a consultant.

“It’s efficient, it’s effective, it means that everybody’s using the same language,” Fontaine said.

Board member Kate Lalley suggested that the committee could help the board develop the budget by sketching out tangible, concrete examples of the steps in the process. The first year with an equity audit might be designated as “findings” and the second round might be what to do about those findings.

Lalley said the board would like the three-year budget ask divided into separate parts that could be labeled and assigned a budget amount.

After an equity assessment or town audit, it is difficult to assign labels to the different “chunks” of the consultant process until that audit has identified what work the town needs to do, committee member Jennie Hoenigsberg said.

“There must be all manner of scopes of work already out there, examples of a tangible nature. I think I heard that’s what the board is hoping to see,” said town manager Lee Krohn.

Equity committee charter change

The committee also asked the selectboard to loosen the requirement in its charter that two of its members be town employees. 

Although members said they’d like to have two town employees on the committee, it’s been hard with such a small pool of potential recruits, many of whom already have lots of other town obligations, Hoenigsberg said.

The board agreed and modified the charter. Instead of requiring two town employees the charter now reads that “it is preferred that up to two members of the equity and diversity committee be employees of the town.” 

This motion was approved by all four members of the selectboard who attended the meeting. Kate Cross was absent.

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