Roanoke’s Equity Board Regroups After Departures, Controversy Left It Flailing

City Council’s advocacy against police reform laws sparked controversy and spurred some departures from the board.

Roanoke's Equity and Empowerment Advisory Board has recently regrouped, having met June 6 for the first time since March. From left: secretary Patice Holland, chair Angela Penn and board member Phazhon Nash. PHOTO BY HENRI GENDREAU FOR THE ROANOKE RAMBLER

A Roanoke City advisory board dedicated to racial equity is regrouping after an exodus of volunteers and City Council representatives left it flailing.

The monthly meeting of the Equity and Empowerment Advisory Board resumed June 6 for the first time since March.

Formed after the 2020 police murder of George Floyd, the advisory board is tasked with carrying out equity-focused goals in Roanoke’s master plan and with reviewing city policies and laws to eliminate any that “promote inequity or limit empowerment.”

As it happens, it was City Council’s own advocacy against police reform laws — enacted by the Virginia General Assembly following Floyd’s death — that sparked controversy and spurred some departures from the board.

Last fall, in its annual wish list for new state laws, City Council urged state lawmakers to roll back some reforms, including restoring law enforcement’s ability to stop drivers for infractions like having broken tail lights or dark window tints. (Bills introduced by Republicans to that effect were defeated by Democrats in the state Senate.)

“It was significant to me that Council took that action without first seeking the advice of the EEAB which was formed by Council to provide advice to it on that very subject,” David Harrison, a retired attorney who served on an EEAB subgroup, said in an email. “With Council blindsiding us with its legislative package, I came to question the level of commitment of some members of Council to the principle of equity for all citizens in the City.”

Councilwoman Trish White-Boyd, who chaired the advisory board, told EEAB members at its March meeting that the dustup over Council's legislative priorities was the impetus for Council’s vote in January to remove Council representatives from the board.

“We decided that maybe Council impedes the process,” she said. “And I gave the example of the disagreement I had with one of the members of the trust committee when Council decided that we needed to give Chief [Sam] Roman some assistance with policing.”

The other Council representative, Bill Bestpitch, retired from Council at the end of last year.

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Patice Holland remains a board member but, as the group’s newly elected secretary, is stepping away from leading a subcommittee focused on trust. She told board members this month that her successor will have to bring volunteers back into the fold.

“Whoever chairs the subcommittee for trust, unfortunately, is going to probably have to rebuild it from scratch, because that entire group is gone,” she said. “I mean, we just lost everybody.”

The board consists of five subcommittees — each dedicated to a different equity-focused portion of Roanoke’s comprehensive plan: trust, breaking the cycle of poverty, neighborhood choice, inclusive culture, and service delivery.

Angie O’Brien, assistant city manager, said the EEAB subcommittees have not been meeting recently.

“We are at a place with the Board where we will be implementing some changes to help encourage and motivate the group,” O’Brien said in a May email. “They’ve lost momentum, likely due to Bill Bestpitch leaving Council, and Trish White-Boyd stepping off the Board.”

This month, the board elected Angela Penn to serve as chair to replace White-Boyd.

“I think with any new group, there’s been the question of exactly how do we structure ourselves?” Penn said. “As that was established, I think that Council members felt that, you know, citizens could take this over and move forward much in the fashion that other boards within the city are already operating.”

The newly restructured EEAB has a weighty task ahead of itself — crafting a formal city apology for urban renewal.

The group also decided this month to meet every other month, as opposed to monthly.

While volunteers have left the board’s subcommittees, there’s been less turnover on the seven-person executive board. One member, Jerel Rhodes, resigned recently. (He did not respond to emails asking why.)

To replace Rhodes, City Council last month appointed Jonathan Lloyd, a researcher at the Center for Policing Equity, a national research center whose mission is to “make policing less racist, less deadly, and less omnipresent.”

Lloyd said he applied for the position in April because he wants to give back to the Roanoke community and is particularly interested in discussing issues related to transportation and homelessness. He also acknowledged that the controversy over Council’s criminal justice reform advocacy played a role in his desire to serve.

“It was in the back of my mind at the time,” Lloyd said. “I do have a background working to raise awareness of, you know, the shortcomings of the criminal justice system and the issues of systemic inequality. So in the absolute worst case scenario, I do have a platform to stand on and I can contribute to that conversation.”

Harrison’s resignation derailed that trust subgroup and its focus on police matters. Another subgroup led by consultant Kathy Stockburger and focused on trust between Black citizens and the city, also took a pause after departures.

One of those who left was Mary Bishop, a retired Roanoke Times reporter. (Disclosure: Bishop is an informal advisor to The Rambler’s founder.)

“Only older, affluent white women were on our committee at the end, which is one reason I left,” Bishop said in an email. “We needed more diversity by class and age, as well as by race. I pleaded for that, but got nowhere.”

Carter Brothers, who volunteered on Harrison’s group, said some members left after the EEAB held a public hearing in November at the Melrose Branch Library. He said volunteers spent months on questions they hoped would be posed to residents only for White-Boyd to gloss over them.

“I think that was the straw that broke the camel’s back for our leaders,” Brothers said. “We were losing members more and more and especially after that meeting we lost more folks.”

Stockburger said her own group members need more guidance on how to structure their work. She said there’s “no animosity or hard feelings,” and that she is excited to get back to regular meetings.

“Having a pause is sometimes a very constructive part of the process,” Stockburger said. “You come back stronger and more focused.”

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