The Akron chapter of the NAACP sent an email just before noon Monday to ask that City Council seek help with its failure to see eye-to-eye on race, or how the decisions it makes as a body help or hinder equity.

“With the recent personal incivility, lack of sensitivity and awareness of racial and ethnic issues locally and nationally, and stalemate about leadership for Council, we believe that the future of Akron needs to have the Council members to seek help as a body to resolve and solve the present and ongoing dilemma,” NAACP President Judith Hill wrote.

But what the NAACP didn’t know is that several members of council were already headed to City Hall for group counseling.

“That’s great,” said Hill. “I’m glad to hear that. It’s time. It’s just time.”

In an unpublished gathering attended by nine of Akron’s 13 council members, Bill Lyons — an author and professor at the University of Akron, where he directs the Center of Conflict Management — introduced himself as an Akron resident willing to volunteer his skills to guide Akron’s elected leaders to racial understanding and healing.

Lyons was not available for comment following the meeting, which the Akron Beacon Journal/Ohio.com discovered after it had ended.

The meeting was called on Thursday by President Marilyn Keith, who after two dysfunctional and disorderly meetings is implementing a three-point plan to restore civility.

First, all nonconforming resolutions, which do not fit neatly into an existing afternoon committee, will be discussed in the Rules Committee to ensure that every piece of legislation gets a good airing before a full council vote each Monday night.

Second, Keith is seeking a permanent parliamentarian, essentially an expert on council’s rules and Robert’s Rules of Order.

Third, she’s brought in Lyons to help her colleagues navigate a path through the divisive landscape of modern politics and race relations.

Clerk of Council Bob Keith recorded attendance at the off-schedule session with Lyons. There were council members Jeff Fusco and Rich Swirsky (who recommended Lyons), Bob Hoch, Donnie Kammer, President Keith, Bruce Kilby, Russ Neal, Veronica Sims and Tara Mosley-Samples.

Bob Keith said he wasn’t sure if the public was made aware of the meeting, as Ohio’s Sunshine Law requires when a majority of elected leaders gather. Any future meeting, he said, will be announced ahead of time.

President Keith said she’s going to consult the city’s law department to see if she can keep the deliberative discussions private so council members can speak candidly about how they feel.

“I think it’s a good start. I don’t think it’s the complete answer, but it’s a beginning to being willing to listen,” she said.

“We have to become credible because we’ve really tarnished that,” she continued, referring to the public breakdowns in civility and decorum.

Progress

The first meeting went well, according to members who attended.

“It’s an attempt, and I feel an honest attempt, to get to the heart of the issue,” Neal said. “But what we have to understand is that the issues of race are real. And you have to have your head in the sand to not see what’s going on nationally and locally.”

Neal introduced a piece of legislation two weeks ago to repeal Columbus Day, setting council on a divisive path to confront institutional bias. The complex Columbus, Neal made clear, is recognized as an explorer and rarely as a slave-trader.

Neal’s plan to use Columbus as an illustration of historic and institutionalized racism sparked heated discussion. But the debate was cut short by colleagues who invoked council’s rules.

That’s when Hoch, who is white, told two black women on council to shut up or sit down.

The next week, Hoch again cut off one of the women during an afternoon discussion that had nothing to do with race. That night, Councilman Zack Milkovich joined every minority member of council in voting to censure Hoch.

But the public slap on the wrist failed with a 6-6 tie vote (Hoch abstained).

Coming together

Following the meeting Monday with Lyons, Hoch said, “I think it was a unanimous decision of the nine who attended to come together to learn about each other.”

Asked what Neal and the minority members of council want, Hoch said: “I don’t know. But I’d like to find that out.”

Neal said council members must “understand as legislators how the decisions that we make adversely impact certain segments of the population.”

Neal gave examples of how he believes council allows or condones the inequitable distribution of resources and power, including changing council rules in a way that bumped black members off the powerful committee on committees; refusing for years to provide free city concerts in predominately black wards; and spending tens of millions of dollars more on schools in Ellet and Northwest Akron than in the poor, minority-heavy neighborhoods of Garfield, Buchtel and East Akron.

“We are the very institution that puts housing policies in places, that allocates resources, that works with other entities for education,” Neal said. “We are the ones who support or dismantle institutional bias.”

Reach Doug Livingston at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him @ABJDoug on Twitter or www.facebook.com/doug.livingston.92 on Facebook.