EASTON — Toward the end of a tense Talbot County Council meeting that yielded no tangible progress on the issues of racism and diversity the council had set out to tackle, a handful of people, including an NAACP leader, phoned in to blast a council member for exhibiting “white privilege.”
Richard Potter, an Easton native and the president of the NAACP’s Talbot County chapter, joined the Tuesday, June 23, council meeting via video call during the public comment portion to criticize Council Member Laura Price by name.
Potter said he was “appalled” by Price’s unwillingness to support diversity measures, and though the audio was not perfectly clear, he appeared to claim that the councilwoman was seeing the issues through a “white privilege lens.”
In the middle of Potter’s comments Price got up to leave, calling the comments “inappropriate” and saying to Assistant County Manager Jessica Morris, who was organizing the callers, “I’m done. If you don’t stop him I’m going to…”
“I… I’m trying to mute as fast as I can,” Morris said, before the line went quiet and the council could no longer hear Potter’s remarks.
Potter’s comments were preceded by at least one other caller who singled out Price. The caller said he was “disgusted” by the way Price had conducted herself during the meeting.
Council President Corey Pack interjected to ask the caller to “please give us your comments without any direct ...” as the caller began to speak again.
Pack later addressed the public before closing out citizen comments. He said, “I do understand persons are very, very emotionally charged over this issue and a number of other issues, but we’re trying to give you space to speak without zeroing in on any specific councilperson.”
Ahead of the callers’ remarks, the council had spent a significant chunk of Tuesday’s meeting debating whether to add a diversity statement to the county’s employee handbook and require County Manager Andy Hollis to compile a report on employee diversity and training initiatives.
Both administrative resolutions were introduced by Pack, who said he wanted to create the diversity statement and outline related training efforts so that people understand “this is something the county really believes in.”
“If we are a diverse county and we believe in diversity and we’re working toward that everyday, why not put it in a statement that we can show people as we move along?” Pack said.
While Price did not object wholly to the measures, the councilwoman questioned the importance and urgency of the issues. She accused Pack of “reacting emotionally” to recent public unrest surrounding issues of racial inequality across the country.
“I asked if we had ever had a complaint on racism and the county manager told me not in decades … long before I was here,” Price said. “So this is not a problem here in the county as far as our employees and I don’t know that we need to make a huge deal out of this.”
Price continued, suggesting the council had “too much on our plate,” such as bandaging economic damage from the COVID-19 pandemic, to worry about solving problems that “don’t exist.”
“I know there are problems we need to deal with, but there are a lot of other things besides racial issues that people need to focus on … I don’t know that we need to report on it,” she said. “It’s just not a problem.”
Pack responded to Price, saying he didn’t “accept that premise that you have to have had complaints made against you to show that you are not welcoming of diversity.”
“You just don’t hope and pray people are going to do the right thing,” he said.
Other council members weighed in, with Frank Divilio saying, “Now is a time that we just can’t keep waiting on this issue.”
Council Vice President Chuck Callahan appeared to side with Price, suggesting that the council should hold off on launching diversity efforts. Callahan asked the council, “Is it possible for us to digest this a little bit?”
Price then suggested the council let Hollis and Human Resources Director Kim Ferullo, who are both white, tackle the diversity items while the council focuses on other issues.
In response, Pack, who is the county’s only non-white council member, shook his head and said, “We’re lacking diversity in the people who you’re asking to write the diversity statement. It speaks to why we need a diversity statement.”
Hollis joined the debate to make known his stance on the matter. He said the county needs to “strive for continued and increased diversity in our workforce.”
“We are not where we need to be. I agree with Ms. Price that we’re doing a good job, but we can always do a better job,” Hollis said. “To strive for greater diversity is a wonderful thing. I just want to make clear that I believe (a diversity statement) does need to be included (in the employee handbook).”
Following heated discussions on the two agenda items, the diversity statement resolution did not advance to second reader. The proposed resolution to compile a diversity report on county operations moved to second reader in a 4-1 vote.
Price voted against advancing the resolution. She said her “no” vote was “not a vote against this.”
“We have always had the courtesy to allow council members to wait on a vote,” she said, indicating her opposition was an attempt to delay action on the resolution. “We have so much on our plate right now.”
But Pack voiced frustration with the council’s inaction on his proposal to create a diversity statement for county employees to acknowledge in the handbook, and accused the council of “basically kicking the can down the road.”
“I am shocked that we had to set aside a diversity statement to another day, that we couldn’t get this achieved tonight. I’m dumbfounded. I really am,” the council president said. “If we’re going to sit here and say we’re a collective group and promote these things, why not do it?
“Maybe it’s time for me to show some emotion. I’m not ashamed to say that I think it’s time for change.”
Pack said the council has “reached a point where we have to make a decision.”
“We don’t need to do polls. We don’t need to set up tables outside election polls. We have to make a decision and we have to live with it and move on,” he said.