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A year after first suggested, Tucson Office of Equity post still unfilled

Consultant from firm that helped craft position turned it down after negotiating salary

The city of Tucson has come close to finding the top administrator for its newest department, the Office of Equity, after more than one year since Councilwoman Lane Santa Cruz floated the concept of more equity assessments for local government. But the position still hasn't been filled, despite a candidate negotiating a salary to take the post.

City officials went through a round of interviews in the spring and considered three candidates for the post — which will have a salary between $80,995 and $143,458 — in April and early June. They expect the search to continue through the summer and hope to finish and have the department running by fall. 

The process was slowed when a top choice, a regional manager for the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, turned down the post, officials said. The same organization, GARE, helped the city find the candidate and design the office's role.

En español: Un año después de propuesto, la Oficina de Equidad de Tucson aún está vacante

The mayor and City Council approved a $500,000 budget for the department with the adoption of their fiscal year 2021-2022 budget in June. The city had started looking into the creation of the Office of Equity in April of last year after the city received an early round of CARES funding and councilwoman Lane Santa Cruz requested the City Manager's Office to look into performing an equity audit on how the money was spent.

After that initial request, Santa Cruz took up the idea of creating a department that could initiate these kinds of assessments in the future, said her spokesman, Antonio Ramirez.

“The goal was to have an office to look at all the departments with that equity framework and have a leadership role in the matter,” Ramirez said.

In September, Santa Cruz motioned to have the city manager, mayor and Council begin a city-wide equity assessment facilitated through GARE, which is a national network that works with local governments. The assessment would look at how federal CARES Act funding was spent, via a framework of racial equity.

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That motion also carried with it the directive to the city manager to begin taking steps to start the Office of Equity and hire a chief equity officer.

“Even in the conversation with the city manager and the city director and city staff, it gets really uncomfortable in the room when we talk about (systemic inequalities), especially because I feel like at times it’s taken as a personal thing. Our folks get defensive about it,” Santa Cruz said when introducing the motion in September. “We’re trying to address the institutional and systemic ways (inequality) holds power.”

Santa Cruz said at that meeting that she felt like this discussion about how policy creates inequalities had never been had at the city level and that she hoped the Office of Equity would normalize these kinds of discussions. “We are a very diverse city, and I think it’s important to do that,” she said.

After that motion, the City Manager’s Office outlined the steps need to set up the office and undertook hiring the department’s head.

Finding the right CEO

The city had luck during their initial attempt to hire a chief equity officer early in 2021, said Deputy City Manager Liana Perez.

The city put out solicitations soon after a motion passed in September on the appropriate job boards — websites where she and her office knew they could find people with experience in public administration — and worked with GARE to find the right place advertise the position, Perez said.

After the application deadline closed in March and some initial screenings, Perez said that the city found six candidates who met the qualifications outlined in the flyer describing the position that they had sent out. Those qualifications having at least a Bachelor’s degree and five years of demonstrated success in the administration of community, government, educational or social justice programs.

Perez said that the city then had a very thorough process for the candidates that included two panels, a community panel and a technical panel. The technical panel determined the candidate’s qualifications, but the community panel included community members that worked with the city in the past and staff from the mayor’s office to interview the candidates and see how well they would work with the Tucson community.

Each panel had about four to five people who rated the candidates based on how well they believed the candidate would fit the position. Perez said this is how the city does the hiring for most of their executive-level positions. 

Perez said that three candidates stood out: Augustine Romero, a former principal of Pueblo High School and the founder of WE Schools, a service-learning program for educators, Roberto Montoya, a regional manager for GARE from Denver and Genesis Gavino, a official with the Resilient Dallas progam, which has a city chief resiliency officer.

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These top three candidates were moved into what Perez described as a kind of “meet and greet” where they would meet with the top elected officials like directors and deputy directors from across all departments of the city and members of the community. Each of those three went through two sets of meet and greets, she said.

The city officials involved in the hiring determined that two candidates were worth an offer for the position. City Manager Michael Ortega then did a review of the two candidates and how they fared through the process and decided to make an offer to Montoya in early June, Perez said.

Perez and the final candidate then went through rounds of negotiating on a salary for the position, whose potential salary, as advertised in the flyer, would be between $80,995 and $143,458.

Montoya however ended up turning down the position after a salary was negotiated, because he decided moving his family wasn’t the best thing at the time, Perez said.

“We were very close,” she said. “We thought we had (Montoya) and that it would all work out and that this individual was the best candidate.”

Perez said that she and the city's Human Resources Department are again sending out solicitations to find candidates. Ideally, she said, the city will have the chief equity officer role filled by the end of the summer, but they want to take their time searching for and selecting the right candidate and have no certain expectations of when it will be filled.

Applying an equity lens

The role of the chief equity officer, according to the city’s flyer, is “responsible for working with city leadership and the community to create an equity framework to be adopted by all departments and offices of Tucson city government.”

Perez, who was the director of the city’s Office of Equal Opportunity Programs or OEOP for 17 years before retiring in 2014, said that the role of chief equity officer is supposed to identify where the city can adopt more equitable policy and practice and make recommendations for how to do that.

Unlike Equal Employment Opportunity Offices, or EEOOs, found in private and public administrative bodies or the city’s own OEOP, Perez said Tucson's chief equity officer and Office of Equity will be outward-looking. The city’s OEOP, she said, looks inward at the city’s hiring practices and investigates complaints against the city though the OEOP does also investigate complaints against employers in the city.

The Office of Equity will focus on Tucson's communities, its residents and how city policy is affecting them but not necessarily on city employees, she said.

“It’s not just equity in our hiring and promotion practices but also in how we do when we’re serving the community with that equity lens,” she said. “This separate equity office would be the larger picture of how are we providing equity services to disadvantaged areas of the community, where are we spending our resources, how are we including the community in how we spend our money on streets and housing and so forth. Is all that being done with an equity lens?”

Perez said the office will also be involved in the city’s strategic development of programs and determining how they measure equity, in addition to being involved in policy decisions.

“What exists right now (with the OEOP) is really more driven by complaints and investigations whereas this, the equity offices, is going to be more proactive in developing policies or programs for the services we provide in the community as well.”

However, she said, a lot of the specifics of what the office will do will develop once it gets going with its chief officer in place.

Perez said that hiring for this position has mostly meant drawing from candidates who worked in EEOO offices, which creates an ample selection, she said, but requires that they think about how well a candidate's skills will work with the duties of the Office of Equity.

“It’s an interesting space of positions,” she said. “There’s a lot of EEOO directors across the country. Most government entities - and even in the private sector - have EEOO directors. Most of them are mandated to have them by federal or state law. But this equity space is something a little different because it’s looking at the broader context of equity in the organization and policies and priorities and how we spend your money and resources. And when I say your money, it’s taxpayer money.”

The pay range listed for the position, a roughly $62,000 spread from the bottom to top end of potential salary, is very similar to what they offer other candidates for top positions appointed by the city manager, she said, but it also gives the city and the individual room to negotiate.

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Perez said that at the time the city made its offer in June, Tucson government was going through a market study, trying to benchmark salaries based on how other cities pay employees in similar positions. This position, she said, was earmarked for further review because the role of equity officer or director in other cities with similar departments varies strongly across the country, making it likely that the salary range could change again later.

The large salary range that is listed with the position makes it easier for the city to negotiate within its possible ranges in the future, Perez said. She also said the salary range is commensurate with the responsibilities given to other department directors.

Two other employees are budgeted to be hired to support the chief equity officer. The roles of those employees will be the decision of the chief equity officer, but Perez said she expects that for the office to carry out its duties those employees would likely be a data analyst and an outreach coordinator.

Because the chief equity officer has to be involved in the selection and hiring of those employees, Perez said that it will take some time to fill out the department. However, she said that the hope is to have an operational Office of Equity in the fall.

City Hall has a vacant office space ready for the chief equity officer to use, Perez said, right next to hers.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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