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LA County Board Of Supervisors Votes To Declare Racism A Public Health Crisis, Champion Antiracist Policies

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) -- The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to declare racism a public health crisis.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas authored the motion requesting that the board declare racism a matter of public health and prioritize eliminating biases from county operations and programs.

"It is incumbent upon those of us who sit in positions of authority to begin dismantling systemic racial bias within the entities for which we are responsible," Ridley-Thomas said.

"It's no longer sufficient to support diversity and inclusion initiatives. The county has made great strides toward addressing and eliminating implicit bias. It is time to advance to the next level,'' he said. "The county must move to identify and confront explicit institutional racism to set the national standard and become a leader of antiracist policymaking and program implementation.''

The board directed county CEO Sachi Hamai to develop a strategic plan to prioritize physical and mental health, housing, employment, public safety and justice in an equitable way for Black residents. A report back is expected in 60 days.

The CEO was also asked to commission an annual report to track the state of Black folks in Los Angeles County and offer recommendations for supporting initiatives at all government levels that advance efforts to dismantle systemic racism.

"We need that community base of support and those organizations. We need the private sector, we need schools, universities, faith-based institutions and again, most importantly, the constituents that we serve to bring instances of structural racism to our attention and partner with us to end it,'' Ridley-Thomas said.

Black people make up about 9% of the population in Los Angeles County, but according to the motion, they also represent:

-- 11% of COVID-19 related fatalities

-- 27% of the people shot or seriously injured by law enforcement (as of 2017)

-- Nearly 30% of the overall population in county jails

-- 34% of the population experiencing homelessness.

Ridley-Thomas' proposal follows the May 25 killing of George Floyd at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, which set off nationwide protests. He said protesters took to the streets to oppose "structural racism and discrimination, asymmetrical consolidation of power, extreme wealth and income inequity -- all of which disproportionately disadvantage Black people.''

Also on Tuesday, the board passed a measure that will let voters weigh in on the county's community investment this November.

The measure, which passed 4-1, allows the board to draft a charter amendment for the ballot that would require a minimum of 10% of the county's unrestricted general funds to be spent on direct community investment and alternatives to incarceration.

Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis proposed the amendment, which would take complete effect by 2024. Though the amendment has not been drafted yet, the measure says that it will prohibit the distribution of any community funds through law enforcement agencies — which includes the District Attorney's Office and the court system.

"It's fine to study the results of racism. It's fine to say to ourselves, 'we need to do something about this,''' Kuehl said. "But what I'm saying and what so many of our constituents are, 'in addition to saying you want to do something about (it), please do something about it. Make certain that all the things that you are trying to do and put in place don't just vanish in a puff of smoke when you're all gone in a decade.'''

A contentious debate preceded the vote, with county CEO Sachi Hamai and Supervisor Kathryn Barger opposing the move.

"The effects may go unnoticed during good budget years, but will become readily apparent during economic downturns when maximum flexibility is the single most effective tool to develop a sound budget,'' Hamai said. "I want to point out that during this pandemic, we needed this flexibility to close fiscal year 2019-20 without any layoffs.''

With less flexibility, the board would most likely be forced to make more cuts in the 2021-22 fiscal year, Hamai said, adding that flexibility has been key to the county's positive credit rating.

Kuehl accused Hamai of frightening labor partners.

"Inflammatory statements about how people will definitely be laid off if we do this are completely unsupportable,'' Kuehl said.

Barger argued that the board could make these decisions with a majority vote and did not need to bring the referendum to the ballot box, which she called "irresponsible." She gave examples of millions of dollars the board had already invested on behalf of the community.

"We were voted into office to make these decisions,'' Barger said. "We don't need a charter to tell us how to do it. We are doing it.''

Much of the county's revenue comes from state and federal funding and is designated for specific uses. L.A. County raises about $8.8 billion on its own, primarily through property and sales tax, and about $3.6 billion of that is unrestricted.

The charter amendment would restrict 10% of the total unrestricted funds, or roughly $360 million, for community investment.

Currently, about 20% of the unrestricted funds are allocated to the Sheriff's Department's budget of over $3 billion. Sheriff Alex Villanueva was given five minutes to address the board.

"I would submit to you that the county of Los Angeles does not have the priorities that you have,'' the sheriff said, citing a Pew Research Center nationwide survey finding that 73% of Americans believe that police spending should remain at current levels or be increased.

"When you try to dismantle law enforcement and the primary source of public safety services to the community, you're endangering the public,'' Villanueva told the board.

(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. City News Service contributed to this report.)

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