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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Affirmative action initiative likely to spur local discussions about race, gender in employment and recruiting

A volunteer holds a sticker showing support for Initiative 1000 outside a joint Washington state House and Senate committee, Thursday, April 18, 2019, at the Capitol in Olympia. Referendum 200, on ballots in November, would allow voters to approve or reject I-1000, which voters decided to put on the ballot and the Legislature passed. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

The action late Sunday by Washington lawmakers to reverse a 20-year ban on so-called “affirmative action” policies in local governments and schools won’t produce immediate results, officials said Monday.

But the measure is sure to cause policymakers in several local public institutions to re-evaluate their recruitment practices, some of which were upended in 1998 when voters approved an initiative making Washington one of eight states across the country that barred the practice of potential preferential treatment based on race, gender or nationality.

“I’m interested in seeing what the bill would allow,” said City Councilwoman Candace Mumm, who along with colleague Karen Stratton pushed for publication of a gender and racial pay equity report in 2016.

The initiative passed by the Legislature on party lines was backed by nearly 400,000 signatures, and would have appeared on the November ballot had legislators not adopted it in the waning hours of this year’s legislative session. It permits agencies of the state, including school districts, local governments and public universities and colleges to create policies that push “participation goals” that do not create quotas for employment, student recruitment or contracts.

The legislation does not require those agencies to do so.

Implementation of the new initiative is not certain. On Sunday night, some members of Asians For Equality packed the legislative galleries for the vote on I-1000 or picketed and shouted in the hallways outside the chamber that lawmakers who supported the affirmative action measure should be voted out of office.

Monday morning, some of those same opponents filed paperwork for a referendum that would ask voters to repeal it in November.

Under state law, I-1000 is set to become law in 90 days. That’s the same amount of time opponents will have to gather some 130,000 signatures on petitions to put the issue on the ballot. If they qualify for the ballot, the measure is on hold until the November election results are certified.

If a majority votes to reject initiative, it won’t take effect; if not it becomes law in December.

Prior to the 1998 legislation, the City of Spokane would incorporate some targeted recruitment to address racial and gender disparities when conducting interviews for new hires, said Dorothy Webster, who joined the city in 1989 and oversaw its affirmative action policies for several years. She retired from the city as director of general administration in 2011.

When potential applicants were selected for interviews in a particular job classification at City Hall, the pool was expanded to include female applicants and people of color when it was determined certain groups were underrepresented, Webster said. That sometimes expanded the pool of potential applicants from five to eight, but the policies did not mandate that the minority candidate was hired, she said.

“All those actions were discontinued in 1998,” Webster said. “There were varying degrees of acceptance then.”

Spokane City Hall currently has embarked on what is known as its 21st century workforce initiative, which among other things has resulted in a push to employ workers with disabilities. Any new policies identifying participation gaps in the City Hall workforce would have to be reviewed by several entities, said Amber Richards, the city’s chief civil service examiner, and require solid numbers to indicate where the city might improve.

“Certainly, we would need to work together,” Richards said. “We haven’t had a really good set of performance data measures.”

Mumm pointed to a quarterly report given recently by Richards and civil service, which is responsible for ensuring equal access to and merit-based employment at the city, as evidence the City Council should consider further efforts to promote equality in the workplace. The report shows that, of the City Hall employees that fall under civil service rules, 2.6% identify as Hispanic. That’s compared to 6.2% of the city’s population.

“Spokane needs work,” Mumm said.

Richards pointed out that some of the employment stats reflect historic patterns of employment in specific positions. For example, the Fire Department makes up a significant portion of employees at City Hall, and hiring women for those firefighting jobs has traditionally lagged behind men.

Chris Cavanaugh, head of the city’s Human Resources division, said the city will wait upon direction from the state’s Human Rights Commission before pursuing specific policies, and what the legislation might mean for local governments.

Spokane Public Schools is also in the process of reviewing the legislation, said Brian Coddington, a spokesman for the district. Administrators were focused Monday on what the new state budget would do to address a budget shortfall that caused the district to send out layoff notices to more than 300 instructors earlier this month, he said, and a review of the initiative’s effect would likely follow.

Ivan Bush worked for the district for more than two decades as its equal opportunity officer, in addition to serving as a community organizer in the East Central neighborhood. Bush, now retired and living in Maryland, applauded the Legislature for taking action to promote diversity, but said the issue was now Spokane’s to address.

“It’s more than just hiring,” Bush said. “It’s a mindset.”

Bush said he believed Spokane could get behind improving equality and diversity in its public institutions, but it was going to take “community will” to get it done.

“You can have all the laws and the rules that you want to have, but see, the more critical question to me is establishing community will,” Bush said. “You have to establish the will to do those kinds of challenging things, those new things.”

Staff writer Jim Camden contributed to this report.