Tempest, missteps over bias training, eviction funding addressed


LEXINGTON, Ky. (WTVQ) – An innocent accounting misstep officially was corrected Tuesday but not before it turned into a social media tempest.

And the debate over Lexington’s potential implied bias training and how to pay for it may have focused discussion on a variety of issues, including how big an eviction problem the city may face in the weeks ahead, how best to approach the training and what it means, and some other city financial questions.

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The two issues took up blocks of time during Urban Council’s committee meeting, study session and regular meeting Tuesday.

In the end, the body approved paying the estimated $120,000 cost for the planned “implicit bias, diversity and inclusion, and cultural competency training” proposed fo the city’s more than 3,200 full-time workers, additional part-time workers and elected and appointed officials.

The training was one of the significant recommendations made in October by the city’s Recial Equality committee appointed during the summer as hundreds of people protested almost daily calling for police reform and racial equality.

The misstep came last week when as part of preparing for a presentation to a Council committee about the training proposal and how to pay for it, Mayor Linda Gorton suggested taking some money for several hundred thousand dollars not yet spent in the city’s $1.9 million rental assistance program.

At the time, Gorton stressed rental assistance, preventing homelessness and avoiding evictions were her priority and that plenty of funds remained available and was available in other city accounts.

But activists picked up on the contrast and critics chimed in. Critics weighed in on several fronts, from criticizing the bias training to accusing Gorton of “defending” the rental assistance program.

By the end of last week, Gorton already had said she would leave the rental program untouched and take the training money from the city’s multi-million dollar budget stabilization fund which has been tapped heavily to help cover coronavirus costs and has been the focus of rebuilding efforts by the Council.

But those words got lost in the Thanksgiving holiday and the controversy grew as the week started.

After the issues were discussed at length during the Budget Committee Tuesday afternoon, it came up again during the full Council study session.

“I was disappointed it was the initial funding,” Council member Preston Worley said to Gorton, calling the idea of moving money from homeless avoidance to bias training was “tone deaf.”

Gorton acknowledged the error.

“We went back and looked at it…it was an honest effort…not meant to undermine the program,” she said.

“We don’t have all the answers…we appreciate the public process,” Sally Hamilton, the city’s chief operating officer, said at another point.

“We will return to the Council if we need more eviction funding…we want to ward off evictions for as many people as possible,” she added.

In the initial decision, the city talked with the eight agencies that are handling applications for rental assistance and all said they didn’t think the full $1.9 million would be needed, Gorton said, noting the agencies “still feel that way.”

Gorton also stressed the program remains her priority. In fact, she initially proposed putting more than $3 million into the fund only to have the Urban Council scale it back amidst financial concerns early in the fall with an eye on adding to the amount if demand warranted.

Charlie Lanter, the urban government’s Director of Grants and Special Programs, said to minimize the accounting paperwork, the staff initially made the decision to recommend the transfer from one account to another, never considering the public relations implications because the city has “plenty of money in other areas.”

As of Tuesday, the eight non-profit groups handling applications have about 593 applications approved or nearing approval totaling about $1,095,000.

The numbers prompted some Council members to question why applications have been low and the process has been slow to get assistance in the hands of those who need it.

“It’s something I’m very concerned about,” said Council member Mark Swanson, who noted he’d been worried initially the city would have to provide more money by now.

During Tuesday’s discussions, Chris Ford, the city’s Social Services Commissioner, said the focus on accountability had slowed some of the processes early in the program.

“We’re headed in the right direction…I think we’re going to be providing it for quite a while,” Ford said, noting early efforts were on making sure “we get it out right.”

“I worry about how bad things are going to get…I want to get the money out there as quickly as possible,” stated Council member Richard Maloney.

Ford said with the processes mostly ironed out and in place, the money should start flowing. And with federal and state bans on evictions and accompanying procedures to try to avoid them possibly running out at the end of this month, it couldn’t come soon enough.

“As we are going into the winter months, the courts could start opening back up,” Ford noted, referring to eviction hearings possibly starting in the courts in January.

With hundreds of cases potentially backed up, other rent programs, included the city’s separate $400,000 RHISE fund, that have helped offset demand on the city’s program could be low on money or overwhelmed. Already, the state had ended its $15 million program.

Those facts weren’t lost on three people who were among the first to take part in the Urban Council’s new trial public comment process that allowed them to dial in virtually after meeting certain screenings.

“This whole situation has raised concerns about the Council’s priorities,” said Emma Anderson, who said keeping people “safe” and “in their homes” should be the focus now, as should approving an eviction ban for the city.

Two other speakers stressed the same sentiments, helping people “at risk of being on the street.”

And instead of bias training for city workers, speakers suggested protests during the summer were about police accountability so officers who stray “face accountability.” Anything less “won’t change the police department,” citizen Ryan Welliford said.

The implicit bias training itself did not escape discussion hinting at the kind of deep differences the training is meant to not only expose but also help overcome.

“Is this the role of government…is everyone biased?” Council member Fred Brown said at one point, picking his words carefully.

“We have to at least have the discussion,” Arthur Lucas, head of the office of Diversity and Inclusion.

“I just have a problem with a mandated training…it is telling everyone they are biased, I don’t buy that,” Brown said, noting the Racial Task Force did “not necessarily” represent the “whole community.”

Similarly, Council member Bill Farmer Jr. equated it to sin.

“We all have sin,” he noted, suggesting the effort was like the city is trying to create “a different type of religion.”

But Vice Mayor Steve Kay countered the training and resulting talks are part of an effort to “alert people to the fact” they have feelings that impact the way they think and interact with others and how those feelings can best interact with the different feelings of others.

Council member Jennifer Reynolds summed up the issue using an everyday example.

“Everyone wears glasses that are different,” she started, continuing it “just means we all see the world a little differently….but I don’t see it as something negative, I see it as continuing education.”