All-male board draws questions in N.S.; Women lead 2-1 on full appointee list

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NORTH SMITHFIELD – Residents are questioning the appointment by the North Smithfield Town Council of nine men to a board that will guide the project to find new uses for the property that once held Halliwell Elementary School, saying not enough was done to create diversity.

Council President John Beauregard defended the decision this week, noting  that the full list of appointments made to town boards and committees since December shows that women lead men more than 2-1 in town among those named to serve in the volunteer roles.

He noted that no women applied to serve on the one board in question.

The recent criticism comes following the announcement of the nine members appointed to the Halliwell Review Committee at the council’s meeting on Monday, March 1. Committee members named to two-year terms included Christopher Simpkins, Scott Sevegny, Tony Guertin, Bob Meo, Frank Halliwell and Bobby Bradford. Councilor Stephen Corriveau will serve as his board’s liaison, and while Jeffrey Porter will represent the Planning Board.

On social media, some were critical of the board’s lack of diversity.

“Gender diversity on boards is a basic tenet of good governance,” noted resident Cynthia Roberts. “Boards and commissions should be gender diverse.”

Roberts serves co-chair of Rhode Island’s Commission for Health Advocacy and Equity, and was one of the founders of town-based group Engage N.S., which has a goal, in part, of working toward a, “healthy, inclusive community where everyone thrives.”

“If you want a healthy community, you have to have gender equity,” Roberts said this week. “It’s so not ok. It has to be commented upon, because it has to change.”

“The more you have representation at the table, the more the world view gets expanded, and the more possibility for equity exists,” she said.

But Beauregard points out that the Halliwell Committee appointees are only the latest to join a long list of volunteers to serve on boards, from the Senior Advisory Committee – a group with a 6-2 ratio of women to men – to the Parks & Recreation Committee – which boasts a 5-2 ratio of women to men.

In fact, from a preliminary review of all appointments in recent months, he noted it appears the council has appointed 34 females – and only 14 males.

“I’m proud of the fact that we had so many women involved in the process this time,” said Beauregard. “It’s tough to argue that there’s a gender diversity problem.”

He notes that the open positions on the Halliwell Review Committee were well advertised in hopes to bring in the maximum number of applicants.

“This has been one of the most highly anticipated boards in a long time,” he told NRI NOW this week. “We can’t force people to apply.”

But Roberts posits that if no women apply to a particular board, councilors should actively work to recruit them.

“It’s not an acceptable answer,” said Roberts of the response, stating the board should not move forward with its current dynamic. “That’s an old and should-be-retired comment.”

“You need to find them. If your process is not attracting diverse people you need to ask yourself why,” Roberts said. “You have to actually work on it.”

She said that there can be many reasons why people don’t show up to apply for a particular position, including not feeling welcomed.

“It’s men appointing men,” she said, adding that an all-male identifying board sends a message about who’s in charge to those who otherwise may have considered serving. “Our community skews very male in our decision making. It’s extremely unpopular to point that out.”

Roberts notes it’s common for those in power to encourage others in their network to step up to serve. She also notes that such conversations take place frequently in her work with the state.

“Sometimes there’s such a difference in what we’re advocating for on state level and what we’re doing locally,” she said. “We are not having the conversations that many other communities are having in the state about how to be more equitable in everything that we do.”

Beauregard, who has led the council since December, notes that he has been actively working to make the process for choosing nominees as fair as possible. At recent meetings, he’s taken extra steps, such as reading off the name of each resident who applied to give councilors a chance to sponsor them. He disputed recent statements that the process has been less-than transparent following complaints by some who were not ultimately chosen.

“It was very above board,” he said of the recent appointments. “I’m very happy with the people that we put on these committees. Whenever you have a process when there’s more people than positions available, there’s going to be some good people that don’t get in. That’s the way it is with any committee or board.”

It seems on the Halliwell Review Committee, for now at least, those with  official voting powers will remain all male. The group will work with consultants to determine how to best utilize the 32-acre town-owned property that served North Smithfield students for more than six decades before closing in 2019.

The committee is expected to hold several public hearings, and accept comments and input from residents as they determine how that project will move forward.

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