The conflict in the past month over the role of a diversity, equity and inclusion officer in McFarland has been brewing for nearly two years.
It started with the creation of a DEI committee in the wake of the protests over George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in 2020. It escalated in 2021, when board members disagreed over the work a DEI consultant had done for the village.
It reached its peak during discussions on including the position in the 2023 budget in November and came to a head when, with the position approved, Trustee Mike Flaherty refused to stop emailing another, Edward Wreh II, about the funding, training and job description of the position.
That led to Flaherty being stripped of his committee appointments and attempting to defend his position on DEI initiatives as the full village board discussed the scope of the job.
Wreh, who is McFarland’s only Black trustee, suggested that Flaherty has opposed any DEI initiative that is not symbolic. He also felt the repeated contact from Flaherty that led to his removal from committees bordered on harassment.
Flaherty has claimed his opposition was based on poor procedure and weak consultant reports. He also said his contacts with Wreh that led to being taken off the committees were simply defending his reputation from what he called “insults and lies” after Wreh challenged his record on DEI initiatives.
The village board has continued to debate the purpose of DEI initiatives in village government on the way to a job description for the yet-to-be-created position. One of Flaherty’s complaints about the process has been that the DEI committee should be doing such work.
Most recently, the board met with the heads of each village department to discuss ongoing efforts and areas for improvement. That conversation was part of an effort to better clarify the village government’s roles and responsibilities in McFarland’s social dynamics, and ultimately to define the position that first kicked off the controversy.
Flaherty voted for DEI measures, panned consultants
Division between the two trustees stemmed from the work of a consultant that the board voted to hire last year.
It ultimately led to Flaherty refusing to participate in a workshop hosted by the consultant and, after a contentious budget process, allegations that Flaherty was using procedural complaints to subvert “any meaningful work around DE&I.”
Flaherty said he refused to attend an equity workshop hosted by Meraki, the equity consultant, because he disapproved of the work done on the report.
“My expectations weren’t that high, but the report didn’t do what I envisioned it to do,” Flaherty said in an interview. “I didn’t think they had a shred of evidence that our village was racist or not inclusive. I didn’t want to go to that seminar with a bad attitude.”
The only other board member that did not attend the workshop was Chris St. Clair, village administrator Matt Schuenke said. St. Clair resigned later that summer due to private circumstances.
Wreh claims that even before the consultant’s analysis meetings, Flaherty was antagonistic to the work. Wreh shared an email chain from August 2021 with the Thistle, in which he sent a letter to village staff and asked for it to be shared with other board members.
In the letter, Wreh wrote that he had heard “several concerning comments” about the decision to hire Meraki.
“Dismissing the consultants and their work before it begins leads me to believe that any deliverable, regardless of its substance and value, will not be well-received due to current biases,” Wreh wrote.
The communications that led to Flaherty’s removal from committees and commissions began when he responded to Wreh’s claims that he did not support DEI efforts in the village.
After the budget saga that led to the DEI position funding, Flaherty had sent an email to village staff and fellow trustees requesting that the decision and process be publicized on McFarland’s governmental website.
Wreh responded to that email calling the request a “publicity stunt” to influence DEI work in the village.
“During my time on this Board, Trustee Flaherty has opposed all DE&I efforts whose scope extended beyond symbolic gestures,” Wreh had written.
In an email shared with the Thistle, Flaherty told Wreh that he had “been involved in Civil Rights issues since before (Wreh) was born.”
Flaherty listed his record, including voting for the creation of the Ad Hoc DEI Committee, which later became permanent, and voting to contract with a consultant for the development of a village DEI report last year.
Flaherty also wrote that he insisted that the village’s DEI committee include minority representation, which its initial designs did not require. He attended two of the four committee-specific analyses conducted by consultant Meraki before the final workshop, he wrote.
In an interview, Wreh expressed frustration with Flaherty’s apparent interpretation of DEI as purely a racial issue, which he says isn’t true.
“Whenever we talk about DEI, Trustee Flaherty always talks about it as if it’s a black or white issue,” Wreh said. “DEI expands beyond that. It means that an 80-year-old lady who can’t walk has the resources for someone to help take her trash out. It means ensuring we have equitable housing for a single mom or a teacher. It means having resources for our vets.”
Trustee Stephanie Brassington, who chairs the village’s DEI committee, echoed Wreh’s concerns.
“I think that’s where Trustee Flaherty gets stuck,” she said. “Race is an important issue, but it’s not the only issue here.”
Flaherty said that any tendency to focus on race comes from the fact that racial inequity was the primary reason for the village to revisit its DEI efforts. Both the ad-hoc DEI committee that later became permanent and the Meraki report came out of residents’ calls for action after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020.
“I don’t pretend that race is the only thing we need to be concerned about,” Flaherty said. “But it was the driving force behind getting this DEI stuff started.”
Budget meetings boiled over
When the village board debated funding for the position in November, Flaherty’s chief complaint was procedure. But it led to Flaherty shouting at another trustee, and ultimately led to the disagreements over Flaherty’s history on DEI in the village.
During the budget finalization process, Flaherty opposed both the $60,000 to fund a DEI position and an additional $25,000 for DEI training—alone in the case of the position, but as one of three votes against the training.
He cited procedural and financial concerns.
Flaherty said the items should have come through the village’s DEI committee, which he argued had been created to review exactly such proposals. He opposed the funding mechanism for the new position — $35,000 of the $60,000 came from utility and tax increment funds rather than the village’s standard tax levy.
He also argued that the position should not be approved for funding until a position description was finalized.
“I’m not opposed to having someone in charge of DEI,” Flaherty said in an interview. “But if we’re going to do all that, we’re going to have to be accountable … I’m trying to be practical about this, not ideological.”
Wreh is the only—and, he said, the first ever—trustee of color on the village board. His experience in that role partly informed his decision to propose funding for the DEI position.
Wreh is quick to admit that he is not an expert on DEI issues and solutions. But, he said, as a Black board member he fields many residents’ concerns and complaints about the inclusion in McFarland.
“Being the person of color on this board, I am approached a lot of times about equity issues within our community, and I have to carry that burden,” he said. “It is a burden, but also it is an honor.”
That burden, Wreh said, was part of the reason he introduced the budget amendment adding funding for a new DEI position. But he also said he has heard from many community members that McFarland needs more DEI resources in both the village and the school district.
But at the board’s Nov. 22 meeting, where trustees voted to approve the final budget, Flaherty’s disagreement boiled over into shouting at a fellow trustee, Carrie Nelson.
Nelson had been trying to explain her support for the position, based on the results of Meraki’s report and workshop.
“I don’t think it would be bothering you as much,” Nelson told Flaherty, “if you had participated in the experience that we had with the consultants.”
“You don’t know anything about me,” Flaherty shouted back. “You don’t know my experience with race. You don’t know where I’ve lived. You don’t know anything about me. I don’t need to be patronized by you.”
The final budget passed with both DEI initiatives included, with Flaherty the only vote against.
Board discussions continue to define position
Last month, as part of its process to determine the new position’s role, trustees met with department heads from every corner of village government.
Carolyn Clow, the village president, has intentionally begun those conversations from a birds-eye-view, she said. The board’s first meeting on the topic was for trustees to brainstorm what roles the village can and should play in equity issues within McFarland.
Chief staffers presented to board members their departments’ ongoing DEI work, ranging from reviews of recruitment and hiring procedure, and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance efforts to grant applications and hiring bilingual employees.
Early discussions of the role of DEI in the village have yielded suggestions like revamping senior-accessible transit options in the village, increasing a commitment to grant-writing, subsidizing more public infrastructure services.
Those conversations will go on until the village board finalizes a job description for the new employee it has committed to funding. Conversations are scheduled to continue during a Committee of the Whole meeting on Feb. 14 at 5:30 p.m. at village hall.
Stephanie Brassington, the chair of the village’s DEI committee, said she looks forward to those discussions.
“We put the money in the budget to add a position. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to carelessly add a position,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do to do that. If at the end of the work we say we’re not ready for it, we can make changes.”