KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. (AP) — In the summer of 2020, after racial justice protests roiled Klamath Falls and many other American cities, the Klamath Falls City Council created a task force to examine local issues of racial and social fairness and advise city government on ways to make the city more equitable.
Last week, the mayor and city council decided not to continue the group.
The city’s former liaison to the task force – former assistant to the city manager Eric Osterberg – has criticized the decision, telling Jefferson Public Radio that failing to continue the task force’s work will make it harder to make needed changes in Klamath Falls.
Osterberg, who is Black, is calling out the move by the council and mayor to not form a permanent equity committee. Osterberg took a job as city manager in Ferguson, Missouri, last month.
“The decision-makers, the people who create policy, really should be being advised by people that government institutions have historically not engaged with,” he said.
Osterberg said the intent of the task force was to produce a final report, followed by action by the city council to then establish a permanent equity committee advising the city on such issues.
But a letter dated Sept. 10 and signed by Mayor Carol Westfall and all five members of the city council thanks members of the task force for their work, and says their work under the city’s jurisdiction is complete.
Osterberg said he received messages from members of the task force earlier this week about the letter, following his departure from the city government.
Joey Gentry, a member of the task force and a local activist, was among members who reached out to Osterberg about the city’s action. Gentry and other task force members of the group were surprised by the move.
“I tried initially to give them the benefit of the doubt because it just doesn’t make sense to take such bold and progressive action in the formation of the task force and then pull that back,” Gentry said.
Gentry said task force members were aware that operating under the authority of the city council had its constraints and limitations, but had hoped to see a permanent equity committee formed to advise the city. She said without a connection to the city, she and others may seek to form a community action committee.
City officials stated in the letter to Equity Task Force members that they plan to continue to pursue equity in addressing the issues raised by the task force, Osterberg said that that’s not enough.
“I just think it’s going to be difficult for the city council to kind of pursue some of these items without some sort of advisory group comprised of a diverse selection of people from Klamath Falls,” Osterberg said.
He said one of the last tasks he completed before departing his role at the city was conducting a community survey about broad perceptions of the community and status of parks and recreation.
Through the survey, Osterberg learned that 40 to 45% of people who participated in the survey indicated that they don’t feel welcome in Klamath Falls.
“That was pretty alarming to me,” Osterberg said. “I would hope that that would inspire city council to be thinking about how they’re engaging in the public and I can’t think of a better way than having an established body that kind of deals with these things.”
Osterberg himself was threatened by a man at a City Hall meeting who displayed a rock in his hand and said he intended to stone Osterberg as a sinner for being a gay, Black man. The man has since been charged with misdemeanors by Klamath County District Attorney Eve Costello.
Mayor Carol Westfall, who is serving in her second, four-year term, said the decision to end the task force, along with efforts to create a permanent city advisory committee, was advised by City Attorney Michael Swanson.
Westfall initially suggested the concept of establishing the task force in Klamath Falls last year and says there is still a need to deal with equity issues.
Following an equity task force established by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, as well as by other municipalities in the state, Westfall said city officials also felt a need to also address those issues.
Westfall said the city recognizes the work the task force accomplished, including passing a resolution acknowledging racism and economic inequity in the city, but that the group should continue their work apart from the city.
“I believe that they can continue on as an equity task force, not necessarily being under the city’s jurisdiction,” Westfall said. “If they were independent, they would be able to do more … They had met the criteria we had asked for,” she added.
The city states that the task force has completed its objective, which includes a final report detailing future steps to address inequities among marginalized groups.
In a response emailed to Jefferson Public Radio, the city’s Public Information Officer Kristina Mainwaring stated, “Council chose, at that time (last Summer), to select the first option, which was to create a temporary task force as opposed to a permanent committee. While the task force has completed its task, their recommendations are still under review by Council so that the City can take the appropriate actions going forward.”
Osterberg said the whole point of the initiative was to try to build bridges to communities that the city council has not heard from historically, through forming a permanent committee following the task force.
“As a government, you can’t approach these issues without being in partnership with these people, the people who have been telling you that they’ve been marginalized,” Osterberg said.
“I understand that these conversations are difficult to have,” he added.
Citing a transitional stage, where the city is searching for a city manager, Westfall said that progress can take time.
Westfall also said there were items on the task force’s list that were outside the purview of the city council, such as taking a public position on water issues.
Westfall emphasized a desire to not to have division and continue to achieve equitable solutions.
“As a city … we want to see those changes that they suggested happening,” Westfall said.
Westfall she expects the city will consider changing the name of a city park named for Kit Carson along a section of Highway 97, known locally as Crater Lake Parkway.
“We’re going to be picking what we can start working on and that one will be top of the list,” Westfall said.