Nearly a year after the city of Santa Clarita’s Human Relations Roundtable quietly disbanded, residents issued calls to bring back more dialogue during the Dec. 12 City Council meeting.
The last effort ended quietly near the end of 2022, with one former member saying Wednesday the group was given little notice or explanation of its demise.
The two current Santa Clarita City Council members probably most closely involved in the last effort — Mayor Cameron Smyth, who formed the roundtable in December 2020, and Mayor Pro Tem Bill Miranda, mayor the following year — discussed Wednesday their perspective on the city’s role in a possible roundtable redux.
Miranda wanted to know how the city could “get the ball rolling” — not to bring back the roundtable, but to try a public-private partnership that encourages dialogue, which is supported by the city, as arguably the biggest stakeholder in the Santa Clarita Valley, he said.
During the meeting, Smyth wanted to know what Miranda was envisioning. A policy commission or a task force, he asked, suggesting Miranda connect with city staff while looking over at City Manager Ken Striplin.
Miranda said Wednesday an increase in concerns he’s heard about bullying led him to say something must be done.
“I would like to have some sort of organization, commission, call it what you may — that looks into the serious problem we have not only in our schools, but throughout our community — of bullying,” Miranda said in a phone interview. “And it’s not just young people (who) are bullying other young people. It’s some of the older people and adults engaged in bullying. And you know, signs that go up … people screaming at other people insults.”
Santa Clarita can’t pretend these national problems aren’t here also, he added.
“Lately I’m getting a number of complaints from community people who are saying that it’s a serious problem.”
But his involvement the first time around informed his strategy for a revise.
“The city can’t run it,” he said.
In phone conversations Wednesday, those willing to speak on the record about the experience talked about the myriad of challenges the city faced last time it created a Human Relations Roundtable.
Miranda, former roundtable members and commenters shared a sentiment that the city has the responsibility to get involved, and as one former member put it:
“There’s a lot of ways the city can do this right,” said Jeffrey Thompson, who served on the last roundtable and previously as the first chief diversity officer at Disney.
“We need to have the kinds of conversations that allow for us and the city to build continued engagement with one another,” he said.
One of the reasons why the roundtable conversation returned is the recent release of an L.A. County report on hate crimes, indicating 2022 numbers rose to the highest total in 20 years.
The majority of the hate crimes targeted Black people — 57%, according to the report. In the SCV, the total number of incidents that targeted Black residents was 19, up from 14 the previous year.
The HRR posted a mission statement on its site, scvhumanrelations.com: “to eliminate all forms of racism and discrimination, and to promote inclusion, understanding and appreciation of human differences.”
While some really appreciated the city was joining the call to action, some members felt the support and actual resources didn’t exactly match the messaging. One member said the committee didn’t have a budget. The roundtable’s page was hosted by the city, but not on the city’s website.
Marc Winger, a former local school superintendent, was one of the former members who said the roundtable’s format stopped being conducive to productive dialogue once it became a public meeting.
“We knew that if a controversial subject like this was open to the public, and we were exploring the things we wanted to do — just exploring things — that it would be sidetracked by those voices who didn’t want us to meet,” Winger said, recognizing concerns that, by several accounts, played out with the roundtable.
“It became a place where everybody went to air their grievances,” Miranda said Wednesday, “to the point where the others weren’t really listening. Over time, it just evaporated.”
A new call
That’s part of the reason why Miranda said he didn’t want to bring back the roundtable as its previous iteration.
The city can’t host it, he said, saying it should be a “groundswell” that’s supported and sustained by community members in grassroots, private-public partnership.
Valerie Bradford, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, spoke out at City Hall about the recently released report on hate crimes in the context of why she’d like to have a sit-down with stakeholders in the Black community, law enforcement and the city, to discuss the data.
She had no significant involvement with the prior roundtable, she said, but praised the effort and said she understood the concerns mentioned by Miranda and Winger with respect to the public discourse.
She referenced a commenter who used public comment at the Dec. 12 meeting to ask why the city is talking about racism when the nation’s borders, human trafficking and fentanyl were all much more significant issues.
“I think that if it is a meeting open to the public — and that is not to say that once we sit down and have a discussion about what we want to do, that it wouldn’t then be presented to the public. But to begin with, it needs to be the stakeholders. Because when you invite the whole community in, then you’re going to get the naysayers like we did at the City Council meeting that have the nerve to stand up and say, ‘I don’t care about the Black community.’”
In addition to the start of a pandemic, Smyth’s last term as mayor also saw the city confront racial tension exacerbated nationally by protests surrounding George Floyd’s murder by Minnesota police officers and locally by an incident involving three teens held at gunpoint by deputies during a traffic stop. (L.A. County settled a lawsuit with the three teens in the local incident with terms that were not publicly disclosed.)
“I think the protests of 2020 and the murder of George Floyd was certainly an impetus for the conversations to begin,” Smyth said, adding the city has had a similar committee in the past, and his idea was to reboot that.
The idea was always for the city to guide the process and then step away, he said.
“We didn’t want it to be a political issue or seem that the council is driving it. We wanted to take a step back and let it be a community-driven committee and that started with the appointment process,” he said.
He also said having the meetings start in the public setting created a challenge because a lot of the discourse became disruptive to the committee’s goal. More than one participant mentioned personal safety concerns brought up by some members of the roundtable who felt harassed as volunteers trying to help.
“The roundtable did have challenges with memberships and resignations and not being able to achieve a lot of its intended purposes,” Smyth said. “So I think if there was anything to be brought back, I think you would have to take some of the lessons, good and bad from the other roundtable, and apply those — if there was something to be brought back in the future.”
He also saw the only way around those challenges would be to not have the city as the point of coordination.
Steve Petzold, a frequent commenter at public meetings who says he embraces the title “gadfly” — afterall, Socrates was a gadfly, he said — was one of the voices, along with The Signal’s Editorial Board, which pushed for the HRR meetings to become public.
He said that if the city was using public funds for anything, the public had a right to be a part of the discussion.
“I don’t think it helps to have the city involved,” said Petzold of the roundtable. “I think that the roundtable would have been better to just be private individuals that would sponsor events that were open to the public, you know, and maybe have a theme for it,” he said.
“(The HRR) had the one meeting where they had the rabbi and the imam come together at the Newhall Library, and that was pretty good,” he said in a phone interview Thursday, “but that was basically a love fest between the rabbi and imam.” Thompson described the event as an effort for the two representatives to get together and discuss their similarities.
Petzold also said when he did attend the meetings, he got the impression that anyone whose voice wasn’t “woke enough” was excluded from the dialogue. A frank roundtable discussion requires tough conversation and opposing viewpoints, he said.
“None of us are ever going to have all the right answers,” Thompson said. “We have some ideation of where we might be able to go, and we’re given a sense from where the city is at, and I think there’ll be a ton of different personalities on that panel and all different voices.”
Right now, the city is hearing so many voices, he said, it’s struggling to find out what the next step, what the next five steps are.
“But, you know, the work needs to get done,” he added, “simply because it’s so important.”