Oregon Cities

Ontario diversity committee ponders path forward after facing scrutiny

election day
A man in a bright yellow shirts shakes the hand of a grinning man in sunglasses in front of a small booth. At the booth, a committee member organizes paperwork while a woman fills out voter registration forms.

Ontario Diversity Advisory Committee Vice Chair Billy Carter shakes the hand of a visitor to the committee’s booth at a National Night Out event at Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario, Ore., on Aug. 8, 2023.

Antonio Sierra / OPB

What seemed like a minor housekeeping item on the Ontario City Council’s agenda has quickly turned into a larger debate about the future of the city’s diversity advisory committee.

In July, committee members asked the council to revise the Ontario municipal code concerning their committee. The draft code proposed minor grammatical changes and adding “socioeconomic” status as one of the groups they were looking to represent.

But not all the changes passed muster with the Council. Some councilors took issue with a diversity requirement for the committee, saying that it set up a “quota” system that could be used to prevent applicants from joining the committee. And Council President John Kirby went further, asking what the general premise of the committee was supposed to be.

“I don’t even know why it exists,” he said. “Not that I’m against it. Normally, this would be done by our HR director, most of the things that are encompassed by this committee … It doesn’t seem to have a mission. I’m just curious if they have developed their own mission or what? We have a committee with nothing to do is what it looks like to me.”

Kirby later clarified that he wasn’t calling for the diversity committee to be eliminated, but the City Council still tabled the code changes twice as the committee looks to more clearly define itself in a town that’s rapidly diversifying.

Situated just west of the Oregon-Idaho border, Ontario is on trend to become one of a handful of majority-Latino cities in the state. As rural communities like Ontario continue to diversify, cities are trying to figure out how to make local government accessible to the groups of people who haven’t always been a part of the decision-making process.

Ontario pinned some of that responsibility to the diversity committee when it was established in 2017, but none of the City Council members who created it are still in office. The committee now has the current Council’s attention but needs to figure out what to do with it.

Changing the ‘good ol’ boy system’

Even though a lot of the issues around the diversity committee remain unresolved, committee members were able to leverage the attention they received into an early victory: a booth at National Night Out.

The national event meant to promote tighter relationships between police and local communities held its first Ontario gathering on Aug. 8, and after committee members pointed out that they didn’t have a presence, the city quickly granted them a booth.

Vice Chair Billy Carter was one of several committee members to work the booth at Treasure Valley Community College, their location situated behind the dunk tank where kids chucked baseballs at a target for the chance to dunk local officials like the police chief and city manager into a tub of water.

The diversity committee used its booth to run a voter registration drive, and after signing up a few voters, Carter recounted what brought him to Ontario.

Originally from Texas, Carter was recruited to work for the Oregon Department of Corrections by former director Frank Hall after the pair worked together in California. Carter passed on opportunities to work in Salem and Pendleton, but Ontario felt different. He felt like its residents were warm and receptive, and now he calls it “the best place I ever lived.”

Working as a captain at Snake River Correctional Institution, Carter said he put in the effort to diversify the ranks at the state’s largest prison.

“One of the key things I did was I gave the people that were working in the institution hope that they could actually get a fair chance at being promoted and take advantage of opportunities,” he said. “Whereas before, we’d have just been a good ol’ boy system.”

Carter wants to protect the committee from the “good ol’ boy system” by retaining the diversity requirement that has drawn scrutiny. It mandates that the committee must represent more than two “different ethnicities, cultures, generations and genders” and one group cannot represent more than half of the committee.

Having a committee that reflects the community instead of a city government that’s historically been dominated by white residents is vital, Carter said.

The latest Census showed more than 40% of Ontario identifies as Hispanic or Latino, a number that’s bound to continue trending up as about two-thirds of the local school district’s students are Latino. Ontario also has a small Japanese American community that traces a lot of its roots back to World War II, when the federal government recruited hundreds of Japanese Americans to farm the area to help out with the war effort. More recently, Ontario has been a site for refugee resettlement, drawing people from Africa and the Middle East.

The committee has sponsored projects like voter registration drives and unconscious bias trainings but the committee hasn’t had the majority-white Council’s ear like it was designed to do.

“We’ve been struggling to try to find our way,” he said. “We were there, but we weren’t being utilized.”

Different sides of town

When Thomas Moreno decided to move to Ontario, his future home was still a patch of dirt.

Moreno had lost his job in California during the coronavirus pandemic and he and his partner were looking to move to the inland Northwest to be closer to his partner’s daughter. They looked at buying a house in Fruitland, Idaho, just across the border from Ontario. But they had trouble securing a house there, which Moreno suspects was related to the fact that he and his partner are gay.

The couple bought his home’s plot before the house was even built and moved in two years ago. Today, the house sits at the end of a small cul-de-sac, the road smooth and the sidewalks pristine. Moreno is well aware that not everyone in Ontario has the same quality of life.

He pointed to the more heavily Latino east side of town, where crumbling roads and dilapidated housing are more prevalent. One of that area’s only parks is a gathering place for neighborhood soccer games, but it has no bathrooms, Moreno said.

“I love the community,” he said “I love where I live. I love it, overall. The only thing that I don’t really jive with is there is a status quo, old boy network in place in this town.”

Status quo or not, Moreno, who joined in 2022 as he was starting to get more involved in community service, said he’s willing to ditch the committee’s diversity requirement if it means it can gain some “teeth.”

What a fully functional and supported diversity committee is supposed to look like is a matter of interpretation. The committee’s duties as described in the municipal code are fairly broad, stating that the committee is responsible for “intentional communication between the community’s diverse cultures and communities with the city’s elected and appointed officials.”

Moreno suggested that the committee could host a community forum to gather concerns from residents who might be uncomfortable going to the City Council or city staff. Other city officials have proposed the committee advise the Council on policy or make personnel recommendations during the hiring process for city staff.

While visions might differ over what an inclusive Ontario government looks like, Moreno said the city needs to realize its political representation problem.

“This isn’t a minority-majority thing anymore,” he said. “It’s the ones with the voice and the power that are in the minority that is controlling what’s going on.”

Ontario City Hall in Ontario, Ore., on Aug. 8, 2023.

Antonio Sierra / OPB

‘We’re here to support the councilors’

While some councilors scrutinized the committee, others pledged their support or even mounted a defense. City Councilor Eddie Melendrez said he didn’t think the intention of the committee’s diversity requirement was to discriminate.

“We were trying to make sure the committee was diverse,” he said. “Not to end up looking like the City Council, where it’s all the white race sitting up here.”

In an interview after the meeting, Melendrez said he grew up in Bakersfield, California, but he visited the Ontario area often to visit his father, who lived in nearby Vale and Payette, Idaho. Melendrez decided to move to Ontario permanently in 2020 and had already enmeshed himself enough in the community that he won a City Council seat that same year. Melendrez is now the Council’s sole Latino member and the only councilor who isn’t white.

The challenge of building diverse political representation isn’t unique to Ontario. In 2012, another Eastern Oregon city with a growing Latino population, Hermiston, created a Hispanic advisory committee with the idea of increasing participation in local government.

Only two years into its existence, the committee won a diversity award from the National League of Cities, according to the East Oregonian. The committee also proved to be an incubator for Latino political candidates, with former members competing for and winning seats on the Hermiston City Council and other local offices.

The committee flexed its muscle earlier this year when a member told Gov. Tina Kotek there were no Spanish speakers on a group dedicated to solving a nitrate contamination issue in local drinking water. Within a few months, Jose Garcia, a member of the Hispanic Advisory Committee, was added to the group at Kotek’s behest.

Roy Barron, who made the leap from the Hispanic Advisory Committee to the City Council in 2018 and still serves as a liaison to the committee, said the committee’s strength is its adaptability.

The committee operates as a hybrid, offering Latino community members a space to bring their concerns while also occasionally offering policy advice to the city council, Barron said. Agenda materials are all in English and Spanish and meetings are also often bilingual. During the pandemic, Barron said individual members played a key role in communicating important information about the virus and providing personal protective equipment to the Latino community.

The Ontario Diversity Advisory Committee has had less than half the time to establish itself than its Hispanic-focused counterpart in Hermiston, and Melendrez thinks there’s still room for growth.

“(Let’s) give the diversity committee the power to see what direction they want to go in and how they could create change and more diversity in the community,” he said.

While the Ontario Council’s pointed questions may have opened up a bigger discussion about the diversity committee’s purpose, Councilor Ken Hart is still focused on the language of the committee’s diversity requirements.

Appointed to the City Council in 2020 and elected in 2022, Hart is the CEO of a local chain of health care clinics. The entire City Council has turned over since the diversity committee was established, Hart said, and it was his first time taking a look at the code’s language.

He didn’t have a response to those who feared that removing the requirement could lead to a whiter diversity committee, but said it felt wrong to disqualify a person willing to serve just to meet the committee’s mandate.

“I have a hard time voting against you because of the color of your skin or your sex,” he said.

Despite all the debate surrounding the diversity committee, Hart said he’s glad the Council is having these talks as the city figures out how it should support the committee.

Carter said talking more will build mutual support between the two groups.

“We’re here to support the councilors,” he said. “We just want to be actively involved and have their support.”

The Ontario City Council is scheduled to meet again to talk about the committee’s municipal code language on Tuesday.


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