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Delray hires consultant to help city, residents with race relations

Published in the Palm Beach Post, November 6, 2004, by Meghan Meyer

DELRAY BEACH - This city has struggled mightily to overcome the legacy of segregation, holding workshops and town meetings over the years to try to breach racial barriers.

In their latest effort, this week city commissioners hired consultant Sam Mathis at a fee of $25,000. He will host two town-hall style meetings early next month to come up with a race relations strategy. Officials hope their latest effort will make a difference.

"What we outlined was a process to capture the strengths while avoiding barriers," Mathis said Friday. "We agreed the process should focus on open, honest dialogue. We'll use methods that will be rather unique from any other town meeting in Delray."

The meetings will be so different, Mathis said, that he won't even use the tag "town hall" to describe them. He's trying to come up with something else. It's difficult to describe exactly what will happen at these meetings, he said. You kind of have to be there. He expects hundreds of residents to attend.

City commissioners made it one of their goals this year to improve race relations, an aim that came from an earlier long-term goal of "community unity." They last discussed race on a smaller scale in 2001, when about 37 residents attended a workshop required in order for the city to receive a grant to plan downtown redevelopment.

Efforts in past years to bulldoze and rebuild the long-neglected west side of the city's main street, Atlantic Avenue, were abandoned in the face of strong opposition from residents of the majority-black community who feared losing their homes. City officials have gone to great lengths this time to include residents' input and assure them that they won't be displaced by new redevelopment plans. But many remain skeptical.

A lack of diversity on the city commission also has caused frustration. With a population that's nearly 30 percent black, the city has not had more than one black commissioner on the five-member panel during the past 13 years.

Previous workshops drew criticism for stifling dialogue. This one will encourage everyone to share their thoughts and feelings, Community Improvement Director Lula Butler said. The format asks very specific questions that allow everyone to participate, instead of a few people giving "long-winded" answers, she said.

"Race is one of those issues every community deals with," Butler said. "People generally don't address it from a holistic point of view like this commission has."

Mathis will collect demographic information and interview about 30 people, a cross-section of the city's residents diverse in race, gender and involvement in civic life. Mathis will ask his interview subjects the same questions he'll ask people at the town-hall meetings. Then he'll come up with a plan to develop a task force to start solving some of the problems people identify during the interviews and meetings.

A Delray Beach resident, Mathis worked as a vice-president for diversity management at Office Depot until last month, when he went into business for himself as a diversity consultant. He presented his plan to Mayor Jeff Perlman after talking with him about the city's goals for race relations.

"This is just another example of Delray leading the way," Commissioner Bob Costin said at the meeting Tuesday. "It puts us in the forefront. There will be a lot of other communities following us in this."

Copyright © 2004, The Palm Beach Post

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