Middlebury eyes antiracist work

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard later this month will consider inking a $32,000 pact with a consulting duo who would help municipal and police officials identify and address systemic racism within the town, and engage with the community on issues of racial justice, public safety and law enforcement.
The proposed contract is with Tabitha Moore Consulting LLC and Lisa Ryan. Moore is the former head of the Rutland Chapter of the NAACP, and Ryan is program manager for the Rutland County Community Justice Center at BROC Community Action.
Moore and Ryan are being recommended to the board by Middlebury’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Workgroup, a three-person panel the selectboard formed last month to evaluate potential consultants to help the town address local impacts of racism.
Middlebury has — particularly during the past year — borne witness to disturbing examples of racist graffiti and white supremacist posters, and the theft of Black Lives Mater signs from residents’ yards.
Last summer, a Black man named Bashiru Abdulaziz voiced concern about his treatment by Middlebury police after a local girl had erroneously reported that he was detaining a woman at gunpoint at the Middlebury recreational field near Mary Hogan School. Abdulaziz, a caregiver, had in fact been assisting his special needs client while holding a phone. Abdulaziz had initially been ordered by officers to “raise his hands.”
Racial justice issues were also in the national spotlight last year, with the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, among other cases.
The Middlebury DEI group — which includes selectboard members Dan Brown, Lindsey Fuentes-George and Farhad Khan — has spent the past five weeks searching for potential consulting groups qualified to help on racial justice, bias and diversity issues. They learned there aren’t many individuals or companies in Vermont who are qualified to do this work, but believe they’ve found a winner in Moore and Ryan.
 “The three of us feel very strongly they are absolutely the right people for this job,” Fuentes-George told her colleagues at a recent selectboard meeting.
Middlebury DEI interviewed several of Moore’s and Ryan’s past clients, as well as others involved in racial justice issues. All gave positive reports for the duo, according to Fuentes-George.
“They tick four big boxes for us,” Fuentes-George said. “They have the educational background we’re looking for. They have professional experience, including with police departments — and our own police department — which was huge for us. They also have municipal experience. And they have experienced this subject personally … which is unfortunate, but it’s an important piece.”
Under terms of the proposed contract, Moore and Ryan’s services to the town will include:
•  Providing up to 15 hours of coaching support to Middlebury police and municipal leaders. This time could be used to organize logistics, consult on specific DEI concerns that have arisen in the community or with personnel, develop feedback for the community and similar tasks required to facilitate this process.
•  Surveying Middlebury police, municipal leaders and staff about racial equity knowledge, goals and topics they want or need to learn.
• Using “restorative circle” processes to review themes from community engagement sessions, data from a community survey, and consensus agreement with the broader community. Participants would give their reactions and thoughts and develop priorities on DEI issues. Restorative circles are discussions that emphasize relationship and community building, as well as repairing harm when needed.
The $32,000 fee would cover the consultants’ services, but they suggested additional financial outlay by the town for such things as stipends for Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) participants, the cost of translation of written materials, and other potential accommodations during the community engagement portion of the program.
Selectboard members at their Feb. 9 meeting were unanimous in their support for the need and quality of the Moore/Ryan proposal, though Selectman Nick Artim said he believed the town should have solicited bids from firms interested in providing the DEI service. He specifically referenced the town’s purchasing policy, which stipulates, among other things, that “all purchases of $3,000 or more shall be subject to a bid process.”
But the policy also allows the selectboard to waive the bid process if it determines “there is only one best possible source for a proposed purchase.”
“Sole source limits are intended to protect the town, the board, its management and the potential contractor from charges of bias, nepotism or unfair practices,” Artim told his colleagues. “If we proceed with this contract as it is, as a sole source, we’re potentially opening ourselves to a situation where another individual or firm that has expertise and track record in the subject to say, ‘Because it wasn’t advertised, and because it exceeded Middlebury’s policy, the town of Middlebury just demonstrated bias against competition.’ And that, to me, would be an ultimate irony — in an attempt to identify and eliminate bias, we are charged with being biased.”
Other selectboard members disagreed with Artim’s take, however, including Heather Seeley.
“I think you are very off-base,” Seeley told Artim. “I think you’re comparing engineering and infrastructure bidding to something that cannot easily be bid on.”
Khan reiterated the DEI workgroup’s finding that there’s a paucity of racial justice firms in the state.
“We couldn’t find any other viable organization that could provide these services,” Khan said.
Selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter asked the DEI workgroup to bring a final Moore/Ryan contract proposal for potential ratification at the board’s next meeting.
And it appears the pact has ample support.
“I support the direction and the work your committee has done,” interim selectboard member Laura Asermily said. “I’m impressed we continue to sustain the (DEI) conversation. It’s been very consistent and sustained, and I’m pleased with our direction right now.”
“I’m ready to say ‘yes’; let’s do it and move forward,” Seeley said. “Let’s not waste any more time. I’m good to go.”
Artim stressed, “I have no disagreement on the topic; we have to do everything we can to eliminate bias.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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