HALLOWELL — The city has some work to do to improve equity and access for its residents.

After half a year of meetings, Hallowell’s IDEA — which stands for inclusion, diversity, equity and access — task force issued a report identifying ways the city can improve in those areas and offers seven action items it feels will help accomplish that. City councilors accepted the report at their meeting Monday night.

Hallowell City Councilor Diana Scully,  chairperson of the IDEA task force, is seen Tuesday in Hallowell. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“A lot of people say ‘Hallowell is already doing well as a welcoming community, so why do we need to do more?'” said Councilor Diana Scully, chairperson of the task force and who presented the report Monday night. “Yet the task force has heard about conflict over how we refer to winter holiday celebrations within the city.

“We’ve heard about hurtful comments experienced by children in schools,” she added. “We’ve heard from older people who feel disconnected from our community.”

Other concerns raised include challenges for new residents and an absence of voting options for the visually impaired, Scully said, adding the completion of the report is “really the beginning” of the work that needs to be done.

The IDEA task force’s full report is available on the Hallowell website as “Item 7” under documents for the July 12, 2021, meeting.

In addition to Scully, the 10-member task force also includes Councilor Berkeley Almand-Hunter, Chris Myers Asch, Alex AuCoin, Aimee Campbell-O’Connor, Mary Kane, Roberto Mandje, Bob McIntire, Jane Moore and Lakshman Subrahmanyan.

The group met six times to discuss whether the city was reaching out to everyone who needs services, whether residents feel represented and what barriers people living in Hallowell experience. They also discussed how the city could address issues raised, as well as resources needed to do so.

Part of their work included an 11-question survey that generated 101 responses. Of those respondents, 91 were Hallowell residents, while 26 said they worked in the city. The survey was circulated through email blasts, Facebook postings, an insert in “The Hallowell Champion” that went to 1,654 active mailing addresses in the city, and distribution of paper copies at congregate living sites, the Farmers’ Market and during a Hallowell Pride Alliance event.

Based on the responses, 28% of residents reported difficulty accessing services in Hallowell. Respondents also responded to questions about whether the city government does a good job of addressing diversity (9.9% chose “not very well” or “not well”; 12.9% were “unsure”), inclusion (12.2%; 13.2%), equity (11.1%; 20.2%) and access (19%; 17%).

A total of 55% said they feel they are always treated equitably or fairly in Hallowell, while 37% said they feel that way most of the time.

For questions about whether city government does a good job of addressing inclusiveness, diversity and equity, respondents chose “not very well” or “not well at all” between 9.9% and 19% The city was rated lowest when it comes to addressing access.

One resident said they have “always felt welcome” in Hallowell and another who has lived in the community since 1982 has always felt welcomed by neighbors and strangers.

Others, however, said they felt left out in Hallowell.

“The town is very cliquey and people can be cruel,” wrote one respondent. “If you are not part of the crowd or have not lived here your whole life, then your opinion is discarded.”

Another compared the city’s cliquey nature to “high school,” adding that there “are established mini-communities and it can be tough to fit in.”

Two respondents said that, as conservatives, they feel they are not accepted because of their beliefs, with one adding that they are “often uncomfortable interacting with members of the community because of their hostile attitude towards people with different viewpoints from their own.”

Among the comments about accessibility, suggestions were made to widen doorways in shops, extend a footpath along Water Street, add more parking for large events, and establish public transportation that runs through downtown Augusta and Hallowell. Respondents also said there was a need for more assistance for low-income residents, including more low-income and fair-market housing, and increased outreach to the homeless community.

Some respondents addressed a lack of diversity in city government. One suggested hiring “a city manager with a life experience is not that of a straight white man,” another said that “most primary committees are white old men,” and it was also suggested to involve more youth in city government.

One stated that they wanted “less arrogance from city council,” and another said “city hall needs to respect opinions of all its citizens, not just of those who are well spoken.”

Councilor Kate DuFour said some of the comments resonated with her, and that she suspects other councilors may feel the same.

“I think each and every one of us connects with one or two or three of those comments,” she said, adding the report can help the city take steps in the right direction. “Are we going to resolve all those issues individually as Hallowell? No, but what we can do is we can make changes that affect the greater good.”

Councilor Patrick Wynne said he will take to heart the feedback about the council being out of touch, hard to approach and elitist.

“Whatever role I’ve had in that, I want to apologize,” he said, “but also say that I will try to be better. I’m hearing the feedback and I appreciate the IDEA task force bringing that forward.”

Among the recommendations in the task force report were to establish an IDEA subcommittee of the Council’s Personnel and Policy Committee; display welcoming flags along Water Street that represent diverse cultures, abilities, ages and identities; provide training for city officials and staff about inclusion, diversity, equity and access; improve access to programs, services and activities offered to the public by the city, and encouraging private businesses to do the same; determine how to create more low-income, affordable and attainable housing; approve and implement an IDEA grants program to fund initiatives; and “adopt, prominently display, and base City Council actions on a Granite City Values Statement to help advance IDEA in Hallowell.”

The values statement says the city believes in the dignity of all human beings, celebrates diversity, and strives to be inclusive and respectful. It also states that the city’s mayor and council will value and listen to marginalized voices and be welcoming to all members of the community, strive to facilitate open and honest discourse about IDEA-related issues, recognize their own limitations as a result of implicit biases, and will acknowledge ways in which power and privilege are present in city government and within the city itself.

After councilors accepted the report, DuFour proposed council discussion take place at its August meeting about establishing a subcommittee to follow through on the IDEA report’s findings.

“(This) gives us one month to digest and sift through the report,” agreed Councilor Peter Spiegel. “I fully support it but I want to dig my teeth into it for a week or so and mull through it before we start establishing new committees.”

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