By Logan Roddy, senior contributor
City leaders added a commitment to address “climate change challenges” as one of it’s short- and long-term goals during their biannual retreat over the weekend. And their debate over that — as well as a discussion over the city’s diversity — revealed the challenge of crafting lofty priorities to be specific but not exclusionary.
All five city council members met with senior city staff Saturday at Hotel Madison for the second of their two-day retreat aimed at discussing a broad vision for Harrisonburg.
The group reviewed some changes to the council’s vision for 2039, which posits the friendly city as the capital of the Shenandoah Valley. City leaders set the framework for that vision during a retreat in January 2019.
Laura Dent, the only new member to the council since 2019, proposed adding a priority she called “Community Resiliency and the Natural Environment,” which is aimed at “preserving natural beauty for quality of life (and) working with the environment to meet climate change challenges.”
Dent, fellow council member Chris Jones and Mayor Deanna Reed deliberated over the specificity that Dent included in her draft sentences. Jones and Reed argued that mentioning specifics, such as renewable energy, was akin to “backing us into a corner” by highlighting only one potential solution.
Council member George Hirschmann agreed that emphasizing flexibility on climate change action was better, as opposed to prescribing specifics.
He said it “leaves the door open” on the topic of the unpredictability of the future effects of climate change.
Dent obliged by removing the sentence with the specifics but emphasized that the city needed a “more proactive than reactive approach to climate change.”
Jones said if they were to include such specific policies about climate change action, he’d like to go back and revise the “A City for All” statement to include “more Black and brown police officers, and more women in positions of power.”
Updating “A City for All”
The group, in fact, did revisit the city’s inclusivity statement written two years ago at their last retreat under the vision “A City for All.”
Reed said she “thought they got it right the first time,” and council member Sal Romero added that personal identities are important and “people want to see themselves in that.” But Jones said the original statement left out different groups of people and much has changed in the last two years regarding attitudes about and awareness of under-represented groups.
Discussions went back and forth between trying to include classifications such as gender identities, military veterans and those of varying mental or physical abilities — all the while the council sought to write a statement that wouldn’t go over a page long.
Romero, who works for the Harrisonburg City Public Schools and is working on a similar inclusivity statement for the school district, said he was hoping to capture many different characteristics that people possess. But the group agreed to avoid that degree specificity, after city manager Eric Campbell suggested it’s “virtually impossible to include every difference between us.”
They also decided to remove the word “residents” from the document to avoid excluding those who work in Harrisonburg but don’t live in the city. It now uses the terms “all” and “community members.”
Ultimately, the city leaders decided upon a statement that expanded on the one sentence declaration they wrote two years ago so that it now reads:
“Harrisonburg is a city with a rich history as a community for all people. We are a harmonious, caring, welcoming city where differences are embraced, celebrated, and accommodated. Recognizing Harrisonburg’s diversity, our support systems assure that any resident has access to city services. We are a city that allows all people to feel safe, valued, and have abundant opportunity.”
For some short-term goals, the group agreed to develop a diversity, equity and inclusion training plan for the city, upon Reed and Jones’ suggestions.
They also want to develop and implement an economic development strategic plan that works to enhance the areas outside of downtown. But that turned out to be a more complicated discussion than just focusing on downtown, as Campbell said that it would require some small area planning as the different parts of greater Harrisonburg are each their own sphere.
For instance, while downtown Harrisonburg is largely defined by the businesses and restaurants there, other areas don’t have the same level of clear, unifying characteristics, Campbell said.
Still, Jones insisted it be on their radar.
“We’ve spent years developing downtown and I don’t think any developer would argue we haven’t put that work in outside of that,” he said.
Also among the council’s priorities for the next three years is improving access to city services.
Jones proposed developing an app to accompany the existing website, but Campbell and Romero expressed concern over this and the existing digital link and robo-text softwares, which require users to download data each time they’re used, possibly excluding those who don’t have — or can’t afford — that technology.
Mike Parks, the city’s communications director, and Campbell both said an app would be a worthy avenue to explore for increasing the accessibility to city services because city staff already compiled information about those services into a document. The challenge will be to create an easy-to-use, easy-to-access format for community members.
The city leaders also discussed the James Madison University City Liaison Committee, which is made up of Romero, Campbell and Jones. Specifically, they discussed ways to improve communication with the university “because often their decisions affect the city as a whole,” Romero said.
But Campbell reminded the group that it’s more of an ask than a promise “because they’re their own state institution.”
Jones cited several contributions that JMU continually makes to Harrisonburg, including that the roughly 20,000 JMU students make up the backbone of the city’s volunteer staff during the school year, especially in the health care field and as EMS responders.
“They’ve been a good partner to the city,” Jones said.
Reed said she doesn’t think the city can require JMU to disclose more than they want to.
Continuing work on older goals
The group also voted to continue with several priorities that were set forth two years ago at the last retreat, including to improve the city’s communication strategy to inform citizens of the city’s stories and services, to increase city staff salaries, to ensure the city’s agencies are accredited — police, fire, emergency communications — and to refine and recalibrate the budget process to avoid biases.
They eliminated a proposal to conduct a formal citizen survey to evaluate satisfaction with city services because such surveys “tend to be biased by those who already use them,” Romero said.
Dent then had the chance to add the specific language concerning climate change action to the ‘Community Resiliency and Natural Environment’ vision, and moved their Environmental Action Plan to this section. The goal of the new vision is to reduce climate change impacts, invest in sustainable assets and infrastructure and to continue to implement the recommendations of that environmental action plan.
Now that city leaders have refined their mid-term and long-term goals, city staff will ensure the language is suitable for action. The documents will go back to the council for further review and then decide how to take steps to accomplish those goals.
The council meets Tuesday to discuss items such as restarting construction on the second high school and enacting an ordinance ending the Local Emergency Declaration issued due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
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