Public debate among governing bodies is healthy. In fact, I’ve been troubled by its absence in recent years. Good ideas are worth fighting for and the fact that no one has been fighting for his or her ideas illustrates that leaders do not have ideas — or at least ideas worth fighting for. It is almost impossible that five people totally agree on all issues all of the time.
However, there was nothing healthy about the public discourse at last Wednesday’s Dayton City Commission meeting. On February 24, the City Commission was to vote on the City’s operating budget for the coming year. The proposed budget included budget cuts to the Dayton Human Relations Council (HRC). Citizens who were aware of the proposed budget signed and circulated a petition that called for full funding of the HRC. This was a reasonable request, considering that the HRC is the city agency explicitly designed to combat systemic racism and Mayor Whaley spoke about the effects of systemic racism on Dayton’s Black community in her 2021 State of the City address and the Dayton City Commission declared racism a public health crisis.
Aware of this petition, Mayor Whaley and Commissioner Fairchild both came with prepared comments, Whaley’s to justify the cuts and Fairchild’s opposing the budget. Fairchild attempted to use a procedural tactic to delay the vote. Whaley quickly dismissed his attempt as a “political stunt”. Whaley asserted that Fairchild had plenty of time to oppose the budget prior to that meeting, implying that he was only interested in maintaining his position on commission which he has to defend during this year’s elections. Regardless of Fairchild’s motivations, many people found it unfortunate that Fairchild, a white male, was the only commissioner inclined to defend the HRC. Further, many were disappointed by Mayor Whaley’s performance, which devolved into something that resembled school yard bullying. The budget was approved in a 4-1 vote.
During closing comments, Commissioner Fairchild collided with the values he had just asserted. Fairchild recalled a conversation he had with the Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl the previous Thursday. Chief Biehl complained that public sentiment was in favor of law enforcement after the horrific Oregon District shooting that occurred August 4, 2019. Chief Biehl lamented that public sentiment turned into vitriol after the killing of George Floyd and complained that the Commission let that “hate” persist after making a commitment to stamp out hate in our community. Fairchild “recognized that that point was well made.”
That point was not well made. To compare the response to a mass shooting and the response to police violence is a false equivalence. The Dayton Police deserved all the accolades they received for saving lives that fateful August night and I have thanked Chief Biehl personally for his leadership during that time.
But while Chief Biehl was all too happy to shake President Trump's hand as he recognized the Dayton police for their effort, Chief Biehl is unable to accept legitimate criticism of American law enforcement. Calls for significant police reform are nothing new. People, especially Black people have been calling for reform for decades.
However, it is true that the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, as Mayor Whaley put it, “forced white people out of their comfort zone and to finally take notice.” One can only conclude that Chief Biehl's problem is not only that Black people continue to call for reform but that white people have finally taken notice. What Chief Biehl fails to realize is that a Black Lives Matter sign is not at odds with a Thank You Dayton Police sign.
Unfortunately, many Americans also see it this way. It's unfortunate that Commissioner Fairchild could not recognize the flaw in Chief Biehl’s logic especially after Fairchild had just spoken up in defense of HRC's values.