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Montgomery introduces sweeping equity proposal that would affect all agencies

Montgomery County Council President Nancy Navarro (D-District 4) has led the jurisdiction’s efforts to implement a government-wide racial equity bill. (Cheryl Diaz Meyer/For The Washington Post)

Montgomery County introduced an ambitious racial equity bill Tuesday, its most significant step in joining dozens of other jurisdictions that are seeking to correct racial inequities through government policy.

The Racial Equity and Social Justice Act, co-sponsored by all nine members of the Montgomery County Council, would require legislation, public policy initiatives and government programs in Maryland’s largest jurisdiction to include a “racial equity impact” statement that lays out potential implications on existing disparities among different racial groups.

Under the proposal, all county government agencies in the ­majority-minority suburb would have to develop equity action plans that include mandatory training for managers and supervisors. A newly formed Office of Racial Equity and Social Justice would identify existing government policies that could be changed to address inequities.

Such sweeping, government-wide initiatives have been controversial in other cities and counties, with critics questioning their expense and effectiveness.

At a news conference Tuesday, County Council President Nancy Navarro (D-District 4) said the bill’s detailed provisions would ensure the “discipline” necessary to address the racial disparities in Montgomery, where there is a higher poverty rate for black and Latino residents than for whites and a disproportionate number of black youths arrested.

“Although all of us want to work toward this goal, the reality is that unless we have structural pieces in place that force us, we will never be able to get to that ultimate goal,” Navarro said, flanked by a dozen advocates and activists.

She said she does not think the additional requirements would slow down the legislative process, because council members are already discussing racial equity in meetings; the new bill would simply codify it.

Jayne Park, executive director of the organization Impact Silver Spring, said the bill seems comprehensive, though details on implementation remain unclear. “I don’t really know what an ‘impact statement’ looks like,” she said. “How is it actually going to happen?”

Marie Taylor, president of Leadership Montgomery, a Rockville-based nonprofit group that provides racial-equity training, said she was “pleasantly surprised” by the level of detail in the proposed bill. The real test of commitment for the county’s lawmakers, she noted, will be what resources they set aside to implement its provisions.

Skeptics of racial-equity initiatives said they will be paying close attention as well.

“It would be a hard sell to me if they need to raise taxes to pay for this,” said Dan McHugh, a former president of the Montgomery County Young Republicans and critic of the county’s immigration-related policies. “My big question is how much is it going to cost, and how are we going to pay for it?”

A fiscal impact and economic impact statement for the initiative is still in the works. Officials say they have yet to decide what the size of the racial equity office would be.

In Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County, the equity office includes one director, two policy advisers and an annual budget of more than $480,000. In Washington state’s King County, widely recognized as the leading jurisdiction for racial-equity initiatives, there is an office that operates with nine full-time staff members and a biennial budget of $4 million.

A public hearing for the Montgomery bill is scheduled for Oct. 29. Several advocacy groups organized under the Montgomery County Racial Equity (MORE) Network are hosting a “people’s forum” on the bill on Thursday.

Local governments are trying to fix racial inequity. But the path forward isn’t clear.

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We are working to eliminate racial inequality in Montgomery County

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