Easthampton plans for proactive problem solving

  • Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, who has proposed creating a Community Relations Commission for proactive problem solving in the community, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice City SPIRIT program and Easthampton Chief of Police Robert Alberti.  GAZETTE STAFF FILE PHOTO

Published: 6/18/2018 9:41:58 PM

EASTHAMPTON — With turmoil over allegations of discrimination, harassment and hate activity last year at the high school fresh in people’s minds, the city is now looking to be proactive itself when it comes to resolving community problems.

A proposed 11-member Community Relations Commission would be tasked with dealing with community conflicts, if and when they arise, and addressing potential barriers to a diverse and inclusive Easthampton community.

The panel is intended to “preserve a welcoming community and promote an atmosphere of mutual understanding and cooperation among all residents, visitors, and those engaging in commerce,” according to Mayor Nicole LaChapelle.

Starting with a two-day “problem-solving and resolution program” through the U.S. Department of Justice this week, the mayor’s proposal seeks to establish the commission by ordinance under the city’s charter.

Six residents will undergo training on Tuesday to become facilitators for the Department of Justice City SPIRIT program.

City SPIRIT brings together representatives from a broad swath of the community to “develop collaborative approaches for reducing conflicts and addressing the factors that contribute to the conflicts,” according to the Department of Justice.

Then, on Wednesday, the facilitators will join more than 40 invited community members to discuss issues important to Easthampton, talk about what they’d like to see from a Community Relations Commission and identify priority issues that could be addressed with such a commission.

The “broad swath” of invited community members includes representatives from the business and faith-based communities and local government agencies, as well as moderators from community-created Facebook groups, according to the mayor’s office.

LaChapelle said Police Chief Robert Alberti was instrumental in bringing the City SPIRIT program to Easthampton, and worked on writing the commission proposal as well.

“What I like about it is, for me as the police chief, we’re not saying in any way, shape or form that Easthampton has major community relations issues,” Alberti said. “But if or when we do run into community relations issues, we want to have a forum that can be a conduit to resolution.”

During the Wednesday work session, LaChapelle said facilitators will discuss with a broad range of community members “what needs to be talked about and prioritized in Easthampton.” The discussion will form a mandate of what the community wants the commission to work on, she said, if it is approved.

On July 11, the City Council will vote whether to continue the work of the City SPIRIT program by establishing a Community Relations Commission to be a permanent problem-solving entity in the municipal government.

One main idea of the two-day program, according to Alberti, is to create a list of issues and actionable items for the commission to get started on right away.

“It’s a launch pad for the Community Relations Commission to get to work,” Alberti said.

According to the proposal, the commission will seek to strengthen and create new relationships with the school community, identify and recommend ways to address barriers such as transportation, language or technology, and identify changes to public spaces in Easthampton that could be more welcoming to different populations.

It also tasks the commission with identifying ways for the city to engage with young people of color and to create a contact list that is inclusive to all community organizations for notifications of important city news and updates. Such a contact list could also provide a “conduit of communication or input back to the city on important matters affecting different groups,” according to the proposal.

The commission proposal and two-day training are a citywide counterpart to the Department of Justice SPIRIT program at Easthampton High School. The SPIRIT program, which stands for Student Problem Identification and Resolution of Issues Together, was brought in to provide training focused on developing solutions to problems associated with allegations of discrimination, harassment and hate activity in schools after a civil rights investigation by the attorney general’s office into racial bias at the high school last year.

Creating a formal commission and community relations process for the city as a whole makes sense, Alberti said.

“By formalizing it, it gives you a central station for issues to be discussed and hopefully problems solved,” Alberti said. “Rather than spitballing issues all over the city, there’s more of a central location for issues to be resolved.”

M.J. Tidwell can be reached at mjtidwell@gazettenet.com.

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