Systemic racism and reorganization dominate Signal Hill City Council discussion

Councilmember Edward Wilson (center) speaks about systemic racism during the July 14 virtual Signal Hill City Council meeting. Out of five councilmembers, Wilson is the only African American and the rest are white.

Amid other agenda items during its July 14 virtual meeting, the Signal Hill City Council engaged in a heated discussion on systemic racism and council organization. After the meeting approached the five-hour mark, the council voted to adjourn and postpone several agenda items to a special meeting next week.

Racism resolutions
Almost as a prelude to its racism discussion, the council agreed to adopt the Obama Foundation Mayor’s Pledge that former president Barack Obama created on June 3, following the killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd at the hands of that city’s police department.

Signal Hill City Manager Hannah Shin-Heydorn read the pledge, which notes that police kill more than 1,000 people each year in the US, with Black people being three times more likely to die that way than white people.

The pledge calls for city councils to introduce “common-sense limits on police use of force,” including reviewing and reforming police use-of-force policies and seeking input and getting feedback from diverse voices on police experiences.

Edward Wilson (cityofsignalhill.org)

The council then agreed to approve a resolution standing up for equality and condemning systemic racism that Councilmember Edward Wilson had requested at the council’s last meeting on June 23.

The adopted resolution mentions Signal Hill’s “troubled past” regarding racism, including Ku Klux Klan meetings on the hill and the 1981 hanging of African-American student Ron Settles in a Signal Hill jail cell.

The resolution goes on to state that the City believes in liberty and justice for all and that Black lives matter. It also states that the City will create a Diversity Coalition Committee to examine current policies related to policing and city operations and events.

Mayor Robert Copeland read six letters from the public into the record supporting the resolution. Several council members also affirmed it as a fitting response to ongoing national protests about racism.​

“This has been a whole learning curve for me,” Councilmember Lori Woods said.

Systemic racism
Shin-Heydorn then read aloud three letters the council had received on June 9 after an anti-police brutality protest in Signal Hill, regarding the council’s March 24 reorganization.

A protest against police brutality took place in Signal Hill on Saturday, June 6, 2020. Protests around the world similar to this were ignited after the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 at the hands of Minneapolis police. (Lissette Mendoza | Signal Tribune)

During that March 24 meeting, as it does every year, the council had chosen a new mayor and vice mayor from among its members, based on an informal rotation schedule.

Tina Hansen

However, though Wilson was up for vice mayor, the council voted for Tina Hansen instead.

See related story: SH council recap: Signal Hill gets new mayor, ratifies virus emergency proclamation

Paul Aleman, one of the letter-writers, stated that the vote was a “conspiracy to deny the only non-white member of the council what should rightfully be his.”

Another letter-writer, Ricardo Pasillas, called on Copeland to take a re-vote and questioned the council’s motives, saying they relate to Wilson’s choice and method of making commissioner nominations on June 27, 2017 when he last served as mayor.

See related stories: Three open commission seats remain unfilled after controversial meeting

Council appoints one new commissioner; three remain in limbo

“Did the council retaliate against him because he [nominated] Black and Brown people to the city’s commissions?” Pasillas asked. “Or does the rest of the council hold the racist view that a white person is more qualified than a Black man in times of crisis?”

Some, though not all, of the six commissioners Wilson had nominated in 2017 appear to be people of color. The council as a whole had voted to appoint each to their respective commissions.

Following the letter-reading Tuesday night, each council member explained their reasoning for voting for Hansen instead of Wilson as vice mayor on March 24.

Lori Woods

Woods said she was not racially motivated but did not want Wilson to serve as vice mayor this year because it meant he would be rotated in as mayor in 2021, when the council will again make commissioner appointments.

She said she found his 2017 nominating process to be “upsetting and disturbing,” even though it was based on the city’s charter.

Woods added that she believed that she led the council in creating best practices for commission appointments when she subsequently became mayor.

“I did not want to see the disruption in commission appointments again,” Woods said. “I didn’t receive any assurances that [Wilson] wouldn’t do the exact the next time he was mayor.”

Keir Jones

Councilmember Keir Jones said that Hansen had contacted him before the March 24 meeting asking for his support. He said he agreed because he knew that the regular rotation schedule was sometimes changed, though he sees now the process was not transparent and how systemic racism could be seen to have played a part in the council’s decision.

Hansen also cited Wilson’s 2017 commissioner-appointment process as her main reason for wanting to be vice mayor this year and then mayor next year. She said that even though Wilson’s method was based on the city’s charter, it didn’t allow other council members to nominate, which she said had “always” been the case before that.

Hansen added that she and Wilson had each served as mayor five times in their long careers on the council and felt it was fair for her to be mayor again before Wilson because of her seniority.

She also noted how she had cast the swing vote that kept Wilson as mayor after his Nov. 2017 arrest in Long Beach.

See related story: SH City Council decides not to reorganize after public comment and deliberation over mayor’s alleged misconduct

Robert Copeland

Like Jones, Copeland expressed regret at how the council handled its March 24 reorganization and how its decisions could be perceived as racist.

“We made a big mistake,” Copeland said. “We probably should have discussed a little bit more our reasoning.”

He added that his reason for voting for Hansen was also due to Wilson’s choice of commissioner-appointment method in 2017 that left three commission seats without new appointments until June 2018.

See related story: Signal Hill City Council fills three commission seats

But Copeland added that Wilson’s 2017 nominations did infuse the city’s three commissions with fresh faces rather than reappointments of previous commissioners.

After all other council members spoke, Wilson reiterated that he had spelled out his charter-based 2017 commissioner-appointment process twice on council agendas, once prior to the meeting and again on that date.

He also reiterated that he met with each candidate individually before that meeting to learn about them, including asking a question about what they thought of a directly electing a city mayor rather than rotating one in every year.

“When I nominated people, it was about what could they accomplish with the city going forward,” he said.

Wilson’s process led to the most people of color and younger people nominated than any prior commissioner-appointment process, he said.

“My whole thing is about the city, not about me,” he said. “It’s about making the city better and moving the city forward.”

He said Hansen’s comments about her motivations to be vice mayor this year made her sound like she was more qualified to lead than he is and that it was okay to bypass him just because he may not allow her to nominate someone.

“Systemic racism is ensuring people of color, whoever they are, are moved aside, for a person that is not of color,” Wilson said. “The action of the council was to continue that practice.”

Though she may not see herself as racist, her action was racist, Wilson told Hansen. ​

“Just like in the resolution [the council just passed], when you know better, you should do better,” he said. “We’re going to have a difficult time moving forward any real discussion regarding systemic racism if we’re going to hold to our positions that we always do.”

Wilson is the first Black man to ever be elected into the Signal Hill City Council. Out of five councilmembers, Wilson is currently the only Black man on council, the rest are white.

Hansen objected to Wilson’s insinuation that she serves on council for her personal benefit and that she has sacrificed a lot in her life to ensure that everyone in Signal Hill has the same access to services, regardless of income level.

“I have stayed on the council because I’ve had beliefs and vision,” Hansen said. “Those have been about affordable housing, workforce housing, parks [and] services for the community.”

However, Wilson continued to press his point on race, saying that people of color even avoided Signal Hill during the 1980s.

“This city has a past that has been against people of color,” he said. “Your actions reflect that […]. If you really want to deal with systemic racism, you’re really going to have to acknowledge that. […] Otherwise, it’s paper-pushing and saying the right words.”

Wilson called for a council reorganization, but City Attorney Dave Aleshire said it was not on the council’s agenda for that night and would have to be added to a future agenda for the council to act on it.

Aleshire also suggested that the council continue the meeting to a future date since it was already after 11:30pm. The council agreed to adjourn the meeting to Tuesday, July 21 at 6pm.

At next week’s meeting, the council will address remaining agenda items, including issuing a request-for-proposals for a fiscal analysis of cannabis businesses in Signal Hill, buying the Signal Hill Auto Center freeway sign and adopting an investment policy.

The Signal Hill City Council will continue its agenda on Tuesday, July 21 at 6pm. For information on accessing and participating in the virtual meeting, visit the council’s webpage here.

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