Updated June 25 with a response from Councilmember Kristiana Johnson.
Edmonds City Councilmember Kristiana Johnson on Thursday offered an apology to anyone who may have been hurt by her comment last week about the use of racial preferences to determine which Edmonds businesses should receive federal grant money to offset the financial impacts of COVID-19.
Johnson’s email, which had been sent Friday to Economic Development and Community Services Director Patrick Doherty, became the topic of community discussion after Edmonds Mayor Mike Nelson highlighted during Tuesday night’s council meeting. Stating there were “underlying issues” that concerned him, Nelson read excerpts from the email during his discussion about how the city will allocate federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief And Economic Security (CARES) Act funds.
During the email, Johnson was explaining her reasoning that the city should rely on “the sales tax revenue as a variable in determining which small businesses would get the limited fund.” (You can read the full email from Kristiana Johnson at this link.) As part of it, she said the following:
“Is it fair to support an Asian owned business instead of a white owned business with the same number of employees?” Johnson wrote. “I don’t think so. We do not have an affirmative action program. Do we differentiate between the Asian who has been in the United States for eight generations and the new immigrant?”
The statement drew a reaction not only from the mayor, but from two Edmonds city councilmembers who have Asian/Pacific Islander family members.
Responding Thursday via email, Johnson said: “I sincerely apologize if my words caused anyone pain, as that was not my intention.”
In his comment to the council Tuesday night, Nelson reminded councilmembers that as part of the CARES Act, Congress intended to prioritize “small businesses that are underserved, including socially disadvantaged groups and women.”
“The reality is you cannot have equality if you don’t have equity,” Nelson added.
“Mayor, I take exception with you reading a private correspondence I had with the director (Doherty) and shaming me in public,” Johnson responded. “I think it has nothing to do with our decision on the CARES act and I really think that you acted out of your role as mayor. You are supposed to run the meeting, not give testimony and not embarrass people.”
By law, almost all city correspondence is part of the public record.
Nelson told My Edmonds News that he brought up Johnson’s email because it was important to discuss what she wrote openly, adding that “nothing about these things we do are private. There is no privacy when you’re conducting city business.” He said he first saw the mail on Friday and that he did not share it with any councilmembers prior to the meeting.
When asked about Johnson’s reaction that he had shamed her in public, Nelson answered, “There’s nothing about this conversation that is private, how is that embarrassing?”
“I’m looking to make sure that we all look at these issues through a lens that’s more fair, and this issue highlights that challenge we are all wrestling with,” the mayor added.
At the end of the meeting, Council President Adrienne Fraley-Monillas told councilmembers: “As having an Asian Pacific Islander family and an Asian Pacific Islander child sleeping in the other room, I am greatly– and I mean greatly — offended by this sort of email. And I think everyone on this council speaking should be offended by this.”
Posting on social media Wednesday morning, Councilmember Luke Distelhorst said: “I will not have patience for racism in our city, including among our city’s elected leaders.”
“The councilmember’s words cut especially deep with my family. For Edmonds residents who do not know us, my wife is Asian; our two daughters are Asian,” he wrote. “Two years ago my wife naturalized; she gave up the citizenship of her birth country, to be a citizen of this country. My family has faced discrimination and racism in their daily lives at work, school, and in our community.”
Later Wednesday, Distelhorst and Fraley-Monillas put out a joint statement:
At the June 23 Edmonds City Council meeting, Mayor Mike Nelson brought to light an extremely disturbing email from a fellow Councilmember to a city director. The email included several sentences which, at the least, are discriminatory to our Edmonds communities of color.
In reference to criteria that would help local disadvantaged businesses receive city grants to weather the COVID-19 pandemic, the Councilmember stated, “Is it fair to support an Asian owned business instead of a white owned business with the same number of employees? I don’t think so.”
In a predominantly white city our communities of color and many businesses owned by various minority groups are already at a disadvantage. Data and guidance released by the federal Small Business Administration has shown that disadvantaged business groups are often pushed out of funding opportunities. Thankfully, the majority of City Council voted to affirm our support for our diverse businesses and we appreciate the Mayor bringing this correspondence to light.
Personally, the councilmember’s words hit hard with us. While neither of us are people of color, both of our spouses, children and family are Asian/Pacific Islander: immigrants to the United States, contributors to our local economy, and voting citizens. We have seen and tried to absorb the discrimination and racism that they have faced. We hear about it at the kitchen table, see our family members push through, and know that we need to do more as elected officials.
Fortunately, as city leaders, we can do more. In representing the 42,000 citizens of Edmonds we expect more from our leaders. Our positions offer us not only the platform to call for a more just society in our city, but also to dismantle and change the systemic racism that still permeates our institutions.
We will listen to you. We will speak out. And we will act.
– Adrienne Fraley-Monillas, Council President, Position #3
– Luke Distelhorst, Councilmember, Position #2
You can watch the June 23 Edmonds City Council meeting on video here.
–– By Bob Throndsen