Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Nothing stirred public interest in the Albuquerque City Council’s most recent meeting more than planned votes on pandemic-related paid sick leave and hazard pay bills.
But it was an entirely unrelated council discussion during the lengthy meeting that has since drawn a rebuke from local Black leaders.
Albuquerque NAACP President Harold Bailey said in a statement that councilors Cynthia Borrego and Trudy Jones used “offensive, inflammatory and insensitive” language during a debate over a $1 million appropriation for the Black community. He said they should apologize or resign and is recommending “sensitivity and positive human engagement training.”
The councilors, meanwhile, said they meant no disrespect and were doing their due diligence by asking questions.
The legislation the council voted on described “an investment that creates positive impact for the African American community.” Councilor Klarissa Peña introduced the proposed appropriation – backed by Mayor Tim Keller – by saying the city already spends in support of the Native American and Hispanic communities but has done little for its Black population.
“I look at this as a way to focus on addressing what we started out addressing as a part of the Black Lives Matter movement, and that’s … systemic and institutional racism,” Peña said.
It ultimately passed 8-1, but not until after an hour of debate.
Jones and Borrego questioned Sarita Nair, the city’s chief administrative officer, and Charles Ashley III, president of the One Albuquerque Fund – a foundation created to raise money for city initiatives – for details about how the money would be used. Jones asked whether it would go toward loans or grants, asked who would administer the disbursements, and asked whether it would support businesses or housing and more.
Ashley told the council the foundation has not developed a specific plan. The board will first convene members of the Black community to determine how best to apply the money based on existing needs, he said.
“For us to jump in (today) and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do with the money,’ would be ignorant on our part,” Ashley, the fund’s lone Black board member, said during the meeting.
Borrego questioned what the city expected by way of “deliverables” for the $1 million, and how the expenditures and program progress would be reported back to the council.
The criticism stems from the language the councilors used, including what Jones said before casting the lone vote against the appropriation:
“This is not good business, and if we’re trying to help people better themselves, one of the best things we can do is teach them how to do business before they are harmed by doing bad business,” Jones said. “I absolutely cannot support this, not because I don’t support the intent; I don’t support the fact we’re jumping into something with no information, not knowing who’s going to … administer it, what it’s going to be for, how people apply, what qualifies.
“Every question out there that anyone would ask before they loan their child money isn’t there.”
Jones said in an interview that she is “speechless” that the comment could offend anyone, saying her goal was to ensure fiscal responsibility on the city’s part.
“I’m not saying I’m older and wiser than the people who will get money from this program; I’m saying there should be a question asked: What are you going to do with it? … It could be my brother, it could be my neighbor; if I’m going to loan money to someone, I would like to have an overview … or at least an idea of what it’s going to be used for, or a report or accountability of what it was used for,” Jones said.
Borrego said her comments have been taken out of context since the meeting, including when she said, “And who is the African American community that is going to be receiving the funding? I would like to know a little bit more about the structure and how this money is going to be used.”
Borrego told the Journal the council had been provided few details about the $1 million proposal before the meeting. She said that while only “snippets” of her comments have been circulating since the meeting, her questioning was “in line with having little information” about which group in the Black community would ultimately receive the money, how it would distribute the money and more.
“After some of my questions were addressed at council, I voted in favor of the proposed … appropriation for $1 million to Albuquerque’s African American community,” Borrego said in a written statement.
Borrego and Jones both expressed support for the NAACP in comments to the Journal, with Jones noting that she would be happy to sit down with Bailey or anyone else at the organization to speak further.
Bailey said this week that he has not watched the council’s entire one-hour debate about the $1 million appropriation, nor had he yet spoken with Jones or Borrego. But he said representatives from four or five other community and faith-based organizations had called him with concerns, prompting the statement.
He said he would like each to say they did not mean harm by their comments or to create the impression that Black Albuquerque residents lack “sophisticated training in fiscal management.” He said that he understands the councilors’ interest in fiscal accountability but that words matter.
“It’s all in how you say things. … You can say the right thing the wrong way,” he said. “As a public official or anybody else, you have to be careful what you say or how you say it.”