Getting ‘uncomfortable,’ Overland Park City Council weighs systemic racism and city policy

Overland Park councilmembers considered next steps for addressing systematic racism during a Monday workshop. The discussion comes after several social justice protests throughout Johnson County and the nation. Above, protesters march near Overland Park Mayor Carl Gerlach's neighborhood in July 2020.

Overland Park city councilmembers spent some time reflecting at a workshop Monday on how they can address systemic racism in city policies. As the one-and-a-half hour session ended, they offered a variety of ideas from writing a comprehensive plan to getting more diverse representation on volunteer boards and commissions.

“I think it’s very good that we’re having this discussion,” said Councilmember Chris Newlin.

‘Uncomfortable’ conversation

The workshop, which took place before the regular city council meeting Monday evening, was led by Shannon Portillo, associate professor of the University of Kansas School of Public Affairs and Administration.

Portillo is set to return next spring for a follow-up workshop.

The council has found itself in the middle of heated discussions this year about race and the police department’s treatment of protesters during marches this summer. The demonstrations in Overland Park were part of a national reckoning over the police killings of Black men and women.

Carl Gerlach
Mayor Carl Gerlach said the session was an outgrowth of the long-range visioning efforts that identified creating a more welcoming atmosphere as a priority. File photo.

Although the Overland Park marches were generally peaceful, one on July 24 ended with an exchange of words between protesters and residents in a neighborhood near Johnson County Community College. A scuffle with police at the same march led to four protesters being arrested.

That incident drew criticism from organizers The Miller Dream, who said the police overreacted that night. The Miller Dream has taken up their complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union. Some participants in the march later disrupted a city council meeting when they learned there was not to be a public comment period in which they could air their concerns.

But the events of the summer were not what prompted city leadership to ask for the workshop on systemic racism, Mayor Carl Gerlach said.

The special meeting was an outgrowth of Forward OP, the city’s long-term visioning plan, which seeks a create a more welcoming atmosphere, he said. Plans for the session had been in the works since at least June, he added.

During Monday’s workshop, councilmembers watched a short video on the history of racially based housing discrimination in Johnson County and discussed the meaning of systemic racism before breaking into small groups.

“We’re going to be uncomfortable today and we need a bit of that discomfort in order to learn,” Portillo said. She explained the difference between racism on an individual level and systemic racism, and about how calls for civility have often been used over the years as an excuse to silence discussions about racism and oppression.

After seeing a video about how developer J.C. Nichols’ restrictive homeowner association bylaws shut out non-white families from Johnson County, councilmembers broke into small groups on how to address the persistent lack of diversity today that, in part, is a result of Nichols’ policies.

Next steps

“I think the next real step for the city is doing a comprehensive plan,” said Councilmember Curt Skoog. “For us to make this kind of change and acknowledgement, we need to have a public discussion and a comprehensive plan is a perfect place to have those discussions.”

Newlin said his group considered how to get more people on boards and commissions, perhaps by drawing from the region, rather than just the city.

Councilmember Faris Farassati said the city could make an impact by being sure tax money goes where it will do the most public good.

“Our number one priority to promote social equity should be preserving our residents’ tax dollars and investing them back where public benefits the most such as roads, schools, libraries, parks and safety. These are the amenities that provide support for the people of Overland Park and enhance their quality of life,” he said afterward.

Farassati has often objected to tax incentives for high-end development projects.

“I think it was so important for us to have this first step,” said Councilmember Holly Grummert. “It’s good for us to get together and talk about big-picture items, where we want to go as a city.”

Councilmember Tom Carignan, the city’s first Latino councilmember, said it’s an important discussion to have.

“I hope going forward it’s not just a two times and done. I hope it’s something that we can keep in front of us,” he said.