Springfield residents concerned about hiring, north/south divide

The board surveyed residents at CultureFest and held community forums in the past 18 months to find out about local cases of discrimination.

The three most common concerns cited included racial discrimination; the north/south divide; and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual discrimination.

The board released an updated report of its findings last week and members discussed with city commissioners how they plan to combat some of the problems. While the data compiled wasn’t scientific, Human Relations Board Chairman Eric Smith said it was important to engage the community about discrimination and move forward.

One of the major concerns residents cited was the low number of minority city employees, the report says. Last fall the board met with Springfield Personnel Director Jeff Rodgers, who said the five-member Civil Service Commission was created to oversee city hiring practices.

The city also recently reached out to local churches and other organizations to recruit minorities for the police force.

“We’re trying to make ourselves an employer of note to people of all races and basically put ourselves out there as a destination employer through a number of means,” Rodgers said.

The city has about 577 full-time employees, including at the National Trail Parks and Recreation District and the Clark County Municipal Court. About 70 percent of them are white men, according to the personnel department. The city has hired 17 new employees this year, including two black men, two white women and one Hispanic man.

Because the civil service commission is already dedicated to hiring minorities at the city, the human relations board didn’t “feel a need” to intervene, the report says.

While the percentage of minority employees is not where it should be, Smith said, the number of applications by minority employees is also small. As the city prepared for its civil service test for the police force, the board worked to promote the opportunity to minority community members.

Recent changes to state laws allow for more candidates to be considered for public service positions, Mayor Warren Copeland said.

“We hope we can use that as an opportunity to diversify our workforce better than we have in the past,” Copeland said. “It’s an area we recognize we need to improve upon.”

At the forums last year, people also spoke out about a perceived divide between the north and south ends of town, Smith said. Attendees expressed concerns about a lack of retail development on South Limestone Street, the south side’s negative perception, and streets and buildings in poor condition, the report said.

The human relations board and the community development department are working to fix zoning irregularities on the South Limestone Corridor, which is one of many factors that could affect development, Deputy City Manager Bryan Heck said. They’re planning to host a public meeting this year to get input from residents.

A large portion of the area is zoned commercial highway, Heck said, which isn’t consistent with other shopping areas in Springfield.

“It can lead to a developer not looking directly in that area because it doesn’t allow retail,” he said.

Zoning is a small piece of development, particularly for stores and restaurants, Heck said, and developers often base their decisions on market conditions.

The corridor is in a great location near Interstate 70, he said. It has seen some new development in recent months, including the Burger King concept store and the Dunkin’ Donuts under construction.

“There’s a lot of positive momentum building, which shows the private market has improved,” Heck said. “Developers are looking for new opportunities and I think the South Limestone corridor is prime for that.”

The board will also look to add Hispanic representation to its members, Smith said, because the community was absent from the community forums. The board met with both Carl Ruby of the Welcome Springfield effort and Lourdes Narvaez, director of Hispanic Outreach Program at Springfield City School District, to gather more input from residents.

“We want to continue to seek out and lift those voices of the Hispanic community,” Smith said.

The board held a retreat in 2013, Smith said, in order to rewrite the vision of the board, which states “to support the city of Springfield as a community where all people are given every opportunity to experience dignity, tolerance, value, purpose and belonging, regardless of race, color, national origin, ancestry, age, military status, gender, religion, disability status, sexual orientation and other expressions of human diversity.”

Smith believes images from Ferguson, Mo., and other communities show the task isn’t done.

“There’s still a lot of work left to do in the area of human relations in our community,” he said.