Diverse male and female stacked their hands together

Gilbert is moving closer to creating a Community Engagement Task Force to tackle social issues such as domestic violence, mental health, drug abuse and diversity in town.

Council at its Feb. 12 retreat discussed the group, which has been talked about since last year when civil unrest shook the country and reached into Gilbert. 

“I will be working with the project team over the coming weeks to map out our draft timeline for the work we need to do and when we think this effort will be ready for Council action,” Councilwoman Kathy Tilque told Gilbert Sun News last week. “My hope is that we will be able to bring recommendations to the full Council by mid- to late-May.”

Tilque at the retreat volunteered to work with eight employees to narrow the task force’s scope and determine how many members to appoint. With a lifelong call for serving, the former 24-year former Gilbert Chamber leader said she hoped to use her collaborative leadership style to bring about positive change in town.

Tilque said although Gilbert prides itself for its culture of kindness and helpfulness to others, there are many needs and challenges to be explored.

Tilque and the project team will rely on the town’s community needs assessment study and the feedback from the listening sessions held over the summer for their work, explaining they “will help to guide us in crafting a proposed scope of issues for the task force to address.”

  The task force was born out of Council discussions last fall about resurrecting the Human Relations Commission, which was tasked with addressing diversity problems.  

The commission began meeting in 2000 but dissolved in January 2017 due to the lack of pressing issues, according to a former councilman. 

The commission resulted from a   recommendation by a task force that formed in 2000 in response to assaults in town by a white supremacist group of local high schoolers called the Devil Dogs.

Several former commissioners interviewed last year by Gilbert Sun News said they felt the group lacked any authority to effect meaningful change on race relations in Gilbert.

 Council last year felt the need to address diversity after the racial unrest in the country manifested in Gilbert as weekly protests at Warner and Gilbert roads.

In Gilbert, Black Lives Matter proponents squared off across Warner Road against pro-police supporters whose protests looked more like a Trump campaign rally.  

 The weekly face-off, which started in June, turned violent in August, resulting in a heavy police presence and concrete barricades separating the two groups for the duration of the protests, which lasted until the presidential election.

“Our largest protest was about 500 individuals,” said Leah Hubbard Rhineheimer, deputy town manager at the retreat. “We had Gilbert residents that participated on both sides of the corners. We know those residents young and old felt they had a perspective they wanted to share and that they needed to share with the community. 

“We also know as time went on the activities and the dialog became less and less productive to the point we had to deploy barriers and barricades to ensure safety for everyone combined. These protests created a huge strain on our first-responders and on our community as well.”

Town say they don’t know the full cost of the police enforcement and barricades.

  The study Tilque and the project team is using was commissioned by the town.

 Williams Institute for Ethics and Management completed a community needs assessment in 2014 and updated it in 2019. It identified vulnerable groups and issues that needed attention – including suicide, mental health, domestic violence and substance abuse.

During the listening sessions in June, the public was able to share their views on racism and police reforms with town officials.

 Some concerns from those sessions included police transparency and a desire for the town to be more inclusive and celebrate diversity, according to Hubbard Rhineheimer.

“What’s interesting is a lot of that feedback has very close parallels or a nexus to the feedback from the community needs assessment that was shared in 2019,” she said, adding:

 “There were specific recommendations, the high-level recommendation was to develop programs to increase and enhance experiences of culturally diverse individuals, immigrants and refugees.”

  Council had several options to structure the group, including forming a board or commission, work group, panel or task force. A majority of the Council members preferred a task force because it would lend more flexibility.

“Task forces work very well,” Councilman Scott Anderson said, adding he liked the idea of having an ad hoc group work on a specific task and then disbanding.

Anderson added that the Council in the past has established boards and commissions that didn’t work out well.

 Bus Obayomi, who is Black and ran for Council in the August primary, was disappointed to hear a task force will be formed instead of a commission.

“A task force is meant to be temporary, just look at the issues and terminated,” Obayomi said. “Issues change over time. A commission is more long term.”

Obayomi also has shared with town leaders his proposal for a Human Relations Commission with three scopes – community engagement, community development and community advancement. 

He proposed community-wide engagement to improve relations between police and community and work on social issues such as suicide rate and addiction among youth and how to eliminate prejudice and discrimination.

Obayomi added he was interested in applying to join the task force.

“It’s a good opportunity,” he said. “I’m interested in how I can drive it in a positive way. If that’s the route the town wants to take I want to see what impact I can make.”

Hubbard Rhineheimer also proposed next steps, including building upon Gilbert Police’s new Data and Transparency Hub, where the public can view information such as calls for service, arrest statistics and crime reports.

Rhinehammer suggested a “transparency roadmap where the police department would work with our digital government team to proactively communicate messages to the public that would share how we are holding ourselves accountable, the things we are doing in trying to create and maintain transparency.”

Additional proposals included expanding police-community partnerships such as holding quarterly virtual town halls hosted by the chief, developing a strategic plan specifically to address domestic violence, sex crimes and human trafficking and conducting an in-depth assessment on engaging with culturally diverse populations in town.