Did the Cypress Council do the “Right Thing?

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Malini Nagpal

During August 23, 2021, Cypress City Council meeting the Council members appointed Scott Minikus to fill the vacant council member position. The Council used an application and interview process whereby they received eight applicants’ submissions. Of these eight applicants, six were women and two of these six women were Asian.

I am writing this today in the hope that it will bring much-needed attention to our city’s diverse residents, and the need for more women, and specifically women from diverse backgrounds, to be elected into our city’s governance leadership positions. I hope to strongly advocate for Cypress’ diversity so that our public policies reflect inclusion and we can offer affordable housing, financial stability, and individual safety.

With the white population at 36.3%, Asians at 35.2%, Latinos at 20.2% and African-Americans at 3.9%, our City Governance needs to reflect and effectively represent 2/3 of our residents who are from diverse backgrounds.

As a South Asian immigrant women, we are explicitly and implicitly informed to “be careful because people won’t understand you,” that “they will not see you as one of their own – as an equal.” I often heard the following words in my higher education and professional life “white is right.” This is often followed by laughter and giggles. The message intended in these statements is clear, that no matter how educated and successful we become we will be perceived as lacking in one thing or another and as needing “coaching” and “development” as reasons for not being selected for prominent leadership positions. This was reiterated by the application, interview, and decision process used to fill the vacant Council Member position.

This appointment selection process sent a message (unintended or intended) to qualified, strong women that their education, professional experience, and community service are subpar. It sent a message to us that we need to be educated and developed into being a leader. Strong women are not equal to the dominant white male perception of a leader. Isn’t this how the ‘Good ol’ Boys Club’ sees leadership?

City Council sees strong, qualified, and successful women as needing development in leadership. For instance, during the council member report and remarks section of the City Council meeting on August 23, 2021, a City Council Member, stated:

“Women in leadership, it’s something that’s important to hear. And, as I am sitting here and thinking hoping that perhaps we can set up a project around developing an aspect of the women’s conference that has some sort of element to it to developing and encouraging women who want to take a leadership role in the city. Maybe we can use that as a way to inform women about opportunities and help develop them.”

I am hopeful that this was not meant to be pejorative and patronizing, nonetheless, that was the message that was delivered and received. It also suggests that strong, qualified, successful and highly educated women need to be further educated and developed so that they can meet the dominant white male cultural definition of a leader. This line of thinking, that women need to be coached and developed, serves to maintain the status quo.

Only one Council Member firmly stated that the women who applied were well-qualified and strong candidates. She advocated for this position to be filled by a woman and insisted on diversity. It seems the remaining three council members selected a candidate that meets their own look, mindset, and status.

During the August 23, 2021, City Council meeting, Council Members gave the reasons (criteria) for their choice for selecting this person as the person who is selected “must be able to work with city staff,” “we don’t need to add any more stressors on them [city staff],” “Able to work with the city manager,” “Need to have a trusting relationship with all of them [city staff],” “Team player,” and “A person who can come up to speed quickly.” It can be inferred from these statements that the other candidates, largely women, and women of color, would not be able to work with city staff, would not be able to be trusted by city staff, and would add stress to city staff.

The use of the words ‘team player’ as criteria for selection is another way of saying that the City Council prefers someone who will blend in, a person who will keep doing things the way they have always been doing, someone they think will not ‘stir the pot.’
It seems that members of the Council may have forgotten that the purpose of City Governance is to provide oversight to the city and to represent the residents of the city. It is not simply to be liked by the city staff. The purpose is to be trusted by the residents of the city, not just the city staff. It is to be able to work for and on behalf of the people of the city and not just the city staff.

All six women out of eight total applicants were more than capable of working with city staff, attorney, city manager, financial team, etc. Instead of selecting a person who could more completely represent 2/3 of our diverse residents, Cypress City Council’s decision to select a ‘white male’ demonstrates that they chose to maintain the status quo and advanced a male dominate image of leadership.

This process and selection criteria seem to be a textbook case of “In-group” and confirmation bias – a manner of searching for and interpreting information that confirms already held beliefs and values. It seems from the City Council selection process and appointment decision that they want us to assimilate into the prevailing public policies on housing, financial stability, community development, and business initiatives rather than them embracing integration and equity in public policy.

The Huntington Beach City Council had the courage to choose an African American woman despite controversy. Instead of taking the easy way out to maintain the status quo, the City Council did the right thing. Even our neighboring city of Los Alamitos, in the face of adversity, is actively invested in addressing diversity, inclusion, and gender inequality at the city and district levels.

By paying perfunctory attention to diversity, Cypress City Council is ignoring the basic needs of the city’s diverse (35.2% Asians, 20.2% Latinos, and 3.9% African-Americans) residents. Aside from being able to secure financial stability, two more pressing examples of this would be affordable housing and community development projects. In order to effectively address both of these, it is paramount to have the city’s diversity reflected in our city’s governance structure. According to Data USA: Census Place: https://datausa.io/profile/geo/cypress-ca/#demographics), Cypress has a median household income of $93, 137 and property values of $632,900. Consequently, Cypress is not affordable to the average resident, including 2/3 of our diverse residents. Similarly, in terms of community development, it is important know and address how these projects uniquely impact the lives of non-white residents. Diversity in our governance structure can address these in more holistic and inclusive way. The hope is that it will help to gradually “chip away” at systemic racism and inequality reflected in our public policies.

Taking all this into consideration and understanding that ‘hindsight is 20/20’, it seems that the decision to filling the vacant City Council Member position by appointment may have missed the mark. During the July 12, 2021, City Council meeting, a City Council Member had firmly noted that 16,050 (69.17%) residents of Cypress voted to pass Measure P whereby, they (people) entrusted the City Council to fill a vacant position by appointment. Although the City may have saved approximately $200K-$250K by not holding a special election, a special election would have given the residents of Cypress a voice. Cypress City has approximately $171, 000,000 and an additional $11, 000,000 coming from federal funding. Spending $200K-$250k on a special election would have been a wiser investment. It would have ensured that every voice, including the voice of 2/3 of the non-white residents was heard and counted.

I hope that in the next election we will see more women come forward and be elected. Moreover, we will see more and more women from diverse backgrounds come forward and be elected. Until then, I hope that the Cypress City Council will actively work at address equity in our public policy and work to not only hear the 2/3 of our City’s diverse residents, but also demonstrate their understanding through their actions.

Did the Cypress Council do the “Right Thing?