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Committee’s proposal to root out gender bias leaves Elon’s town council wanting more

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A committee tasked with wringing the bias out of Elon’s rules and regulations received a somewhat underwhelming reception this week when it pitched its inaugural recommendation to the town’s elected leaders.

Elon’s town council ultimately took no action on a proposed text amendment that the Diversity, Equity, and Belonging Committee proffered on Monday in order to address some of what it considered seemingly outdated gender terminology in the town’s code of ordinances.
Yet, the council’s reluctance to act on this measure wasn’t due to its sense that the committee had gone too far in its appointed mission.

In fact, the prevailing mood on the council seemed to be that the group hadn’t gone far enough – with several members suggesting that the committee should have more recommendations under its belt before it presents its work to the council for final approval.

The only proposal that has, so far, emerged from the Diversity, Equity, and Belonging Committee is a single sentence of text that the group has recommended adding to an introductory section in the town’s code of ordinance. Entitled “Rules of Construction,” this section contains no substantive provisions, but instead serves as a guide to the reader on how certain words or phrases should be interpreted when they appear in the town’s ordinances.

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Among the current rules of construction is a provision which states that a word such as “he” or “him,” which implies masculine gender, “shall extend and be applied to females and to firms, partnerships, and corporations as well as to males.”

In order to expand on this rule, the committee has proposed an additional passage to clarify that “the words ‘person, people, they or them’ shall extend to all gender identities.”

Rose Keller Cooper, the head of the Diversity, Equity, and Belonging Committee, told the council that she and her colleagues saw this proposed amendment as a way to get a quick point on the scoreboard before they really got into the thick of the town’s ordinances.

“The committee felt that this was a really good starting point,” she added when she presented the proposed amendment to the council on Monday, “that this is something that was obvious and glaring – and it spoke to the first thing we were asked to do.”

Cooper added that it seemed simpler, and more cost-effective, to add language to the rules of construction rather than to replace problematic terminology piecemeal – given that the company which publishes the ordinances charges the town for every word that it adds or revises.

The piecemeal approach nevertheless struck a chord with Elon’s mayor Emily Sharpe, who spotted a number of what she considered anachronistic male references after a cursory search of the code. Sharpe noted, for instance, that the current text refers to both the town manager and the police chief as “he” when outlining the duties of their positions. She went on to stress the discrepancy that Kelly Blackwelder, Elon’s current chief of police, is a woman – a fact that she said seems to underscore the need for a change in the text.

“Now, it’s our opportunity to say let’s do it fresh,” she added. “If a little girl walks in here and reads an ordinance she should know that she has the opportunity to be the police chief or be the town manager.”

Sharpe also observed that there are other gendered terms in the town’s ordinances which seemed wholly appropriate – such as an animal control provision that refers to a female dog in heat as a “she.”

The limited scope of the committee’s proposal also raised some concerns for councilman Monti Allison, who suggested that the group’s members may have been a bit premature in their presentation to the council.

‘I’d like you to go through several chapters and see the things that [you think] are pressing,” he went on to tell Cooper. “For us to change something each month…without knowing the context, just isn’t very productive.”

Allison’s misgivings were echoed by councilman Quinn Ray, who agreed that the committee should have something more to show for itself before it presents its work to the council.

In the end, the council urged Cooper and her colleagues to continue their review of the town’s ordinances and bring back some additional suggestions for improving the text. The council also seemed eager to have the group’s members evaluate the text with a critical eye.

“This is extremely important,” insisted councilman Randy Orwig, “especially when I’m told that the police chief has to be a man.”

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