For the second week, dozens of people called on the Reno City Council to consider spending less money on the police department and better reform use-of-force policies in the wake of the police custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
People who spoke during the public comment period of Wednesday’s council meeting also called on the council to replace acting City Manager Jason Soto, who is also the city’s police chief.
They worried he has too much authority over the city’s purse strings at a time activists are calling for the police to be defunded in favor of other priorities such as mental health and education.
“Here we have the police chief in the city’s top executive position,” said Meridith Oda. “It sends exactly the wrong message in this time of social reckoning.”
Others called on the city to expunge the records of those arrested on charges of violating curfews imposed to address the civil unrest that followed public demonstrations on May 30.
Amid the repeated calls for police reform, Councilwoman Bonnie Weber’s personal assistant, Diane Baranowski, used the public comment period to express her disgust with what she described as individual council members’ “groveling” at last week’s council meeting.
“It was clear to me they could not apologize enough to the mob for the perceived sin of being white,” Baranowski said, before singling out individual council members and using racial terms to accusing them of pandering to activists’ “vilification of Reno’s police” at the June 3 meeting.
“I believe Jenny Brekhus wanted the crowd to know she’s not nearly as white as she might appear because she married ethnic,” Baranowski said as Councilman Devon Reese tried to remind her not to attack individual council members.
“I believe Naomi Duerr called attention to the color of her skin, I believe, so the hostile crowd wouldn’t think she was too white and had not experienced discrimination herself. Devon Reese apologized repeatedly for his crime of being a privileged white male,” Baranowski said.
“Oscar Delgado was safe that day and had nothing to apologize for because everyone knows he is an authentic Hispanic and certainly did not have to establish his color credentials as the rest of you were so desperate to do that day,” she said.
Baranowski vowed to join with others who agree with her to oppose defunding the police.
“We know right from wrong and will be galvanized like Reno has never seen before,” she said.
Reached for comment after the meeting, Councilman Delgado said only: “I don’t have any comment about the comments made at today’s meeting. I’m speechless.”
Weber did not address her assistant’s remarks during the council meeting, nor did she respond to multiple requests for comment from the Reno Gazette Journal.
Baranowski is not a city employee, but identifies herself in emails as Weber’s personal assistant. Campaign finance reports show Weber paid Baranowski between $600 and $1,800 a month last year for a total of $9,585 in 2019. Weber classified the expenditures as consulting expenses.
Although she isn’t employed by the city, Baranowski is allowed to interact with city staff on Weber’s behalf, chief of staff Dylan Shaver said.
“I believe she is employed by Council member Weber in a private capacity,” Shaver said. “If Council member Weber wants her in a room or on a project that staff is working with her on, we allow for that.”
Reese said he found Baranowski’s comments disheartening.
“But we don’t get to choose who speaks in public comment or what they speak about,” he said.
Brekhus declined to comment.
Duerr said she was caught off guard by the remarks.
“I am deeply disappointed in the portrayal of my empathy and my commitment to address inequities experienced by people of color as somehow a negative,” she said. “In fact, I think we all need to hear each other’s pain, acknowledge their experiences and work to improve our community.”
The council has been under increasing pressure to address police reform. Activists have held two public protests demanding more transparency and expedited investigations of local police homicides.
Riots broke out at the end of the May 30 demonstration, with individuals defacing the police department headquarters and smashing windows and setting fires at city hall.
Reno Finance Director Deborah Lauchner said the unrest has cost the city $1.8 million so far, including $1.1 million in police overtime and $600,000 in damage to city hall. She asked the council to budget another $1.5 million for addressing the unrest through the end of the month.
Following public comment last week, the Reno Police Department implemented changes to its use of force policy, including requiring officers to intervene if another officer is using excessive force and giving a warning before using deadly force when reasonable.
Some who spoke Wednesday didn’t believe those changes went far enough.
Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve said she is scheduling a series of town halls and roundtable discussions on the topic next week.
“This isn’t enough to just put policy in, it must be lifelong change,” she said. “If a policy sits on a shelf, it doesn’t do any good.
“This is not going to take place behind the scenes. It’s going to take place in public and I want everybody at the table.”
Schieve told the Reno Gazette Journal she does not support replacing Soto with a new acting city manager.
“He’s done a very good job helping with the transition during some extremely challenging times,” she said. “It has also been beneficial during this time to have his institutional knowledge and immediate response to the council and community regarding policies and changes at the Reno Police Department.”
Reese echoed Schieve’s support of Soto, noting the city is still working to recruit a permanent candidate for the position, a process he hopes moves quickly.
“(Soto) has worked hard to serve with integrity at a difficult time,” Reese said. “However, even he would be the first to acknowledge that this is a temporary undertaking and that he has had limited input into our budget process that began in November.”
Anjeanette Damon is the government watchdog reporter for the RGJ. You can reach her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @AnjeanetteDamon. If you care about shining a bright light on decisions made by your elected officials, please consider subscribing to the Reno Gazette Journal.
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