Ordinance declaring racism a health crisis a no-go

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By Andreas Yilma, Staff Writer

Selectmen opt not to move ahead with proposal or resolution

BEACON FALLS — The Board of Selectmen Sept. 14 unanimously agreed not to adopt a proposed ordinance that would declare racism a public health crisis.

The board also voted, 2-1, not to approve a similar resolution.

Resident Barbara Berkowitz last month proposed the board adopt an ordinance or resolution declaring racism a public health crisis as a step toward addressing systemic racism.

The proposal decreed, among other declarations, that racism is a root cause of poverty and constricts economic mobility, and has intensified a health divide. It called on the Board of Selectmen to assert that racism is a public health crisis, work to enhance diversity, and to advocate for policies that improve health in communities of color.

The proposal is part of a movement spurred by Health Equity Solutions, a Hartford-based nonprofit organization that advocates for equitable health care access. More than 15 municipalities have adopted similar resolutions.

Town Attorney Stephen Studer advised the board not to adopt an ordinance for several reasons. He counseled that the proposal is more of a resolution because it doesn’t suggest a new law, the offer of broad factual findings of racism is beyond the authority of the town’s legislative body, and it could have potential unintended adverse legal consequences.

In a letter to the board, Studer wrote a number of municipal attorneys looking at the same or similar proposal believe that such an admission might be used to satisfy a plaintiff’s initial evidentiary burden in a case for racial discrimination and shift the burden of proof from the plaintiff to the town.

As a person of color, First Selectman Gerard Smith said racism is alive and well in Beacon Falls and the rest of the nation, but he feels it’s not a systemic problem in town.

“Racism is something that is prevalent in America. You cannot legislate racism away,” Smith said in a subsequent interview. “It (the proposed ordinance) can prove to be divisive and cause problems where there are none.”

Studer recommended the selectmen adopt a resolution saying the town stands united with other municipalities and organizations opposed to racism and inequality, and supports those who peacefully fight against systemic racism.

The board deliberated the idea, but voted against it, 2-1, with Selectman Christopher Bielik supporting the resolution.

“It’s impossible to disagree with the notion that there are elements of systemic racism throughout this town,” Bielik said during the meeting.

Smith didn’t feel the resolution was necessary for the town.

“I view this as a very close, personal subject and I think that the town should not adopt anything,” Smith said at the meeting. “I think we should recognize racism for what it is and there’s nothing we can say or do at our level here that’s going to change it.”