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Are Resolutions Empty Promises?

You may have noticed some high-profile resolutions going to the Board of Supervisors or City Council recently, like Mai Vang’s “Resolution Condemning and Combating Racism, Xenophobia, and Intolerance Against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders”.

But what is in a resolution and what makes them effective? Are they just empty promises from hearing bodies to their constituents? Let’s break it down.

There are two main pieces of a Resolution: (1) the “whereas” language and (2) the “now therefore be it resolved” language.

The “whereas” language is what sets the context for the reader by introducing the reason for the resolution. It’s usually chronological and goes over previous decisions or actions by the hearing body or facts and statistics about the problem being addressed. This is the piece that answers the “what?” and “why?” for the reader. Check out some examples of “whereas” language from the “Resolution Condemning and Combating Racism, Xenophobia, and Intolerance Against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders” below.

B. The City of Sacramento is home to an estimated 513,620 residents, of which Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) comprise 20.6%, and home to over 6,000 AAPI small businesses.

E. Racism and scapegoating toward AAPIs have persisted since the 19th century and contributed toward policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited immigration of Chinese laborers, and introduction of the term “yellow peril,” which represented East Asians as dangerous and threatening to the United States.

H. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic in California in March 2020, harmful and xenophobic rhetoric related to the geographic origins of this disease resulted in a rise in reported hate incidents and crimes against AAPI individuals, communities, and businesses throughout the state.

While the whereas language provides important context, the “resolved” language is where the real meat of the resolution is. It is the only piece of the resolution that is acted upon once it passes. Each piece of the resolved language should cover “who?” and “how?”. So how can you tell if the “resolve” is effective?

Look for strong verbs

Look for strong verbs like “shall” or “must” in the “resolve” language. This language indicates that the action will get done and is more legally binding than language like “may” or “will encourage” or “intends to”.

Look for Specifics

Think about “SMART” goals when you are considering if a resolution will be effective.

SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound

Specific and Measurable: The more specific and measurable the language, the easier it will be to monitor and make sure the promise is being kept and the easier it will be for responsible group to carry out. Attainable: The hearing body has to actually have the authority over the action being considered for the resolution to be effective. Relevant: The actions being proposed by the resolve language should directly address and be relevant to the problem being laid out by the whereas language. It is even better if goals include equity and inclusivity – check out this resource on “SMARTIE” goals!

Let’s take the example of the Sacramento County “Resolution Declaring Racism a Public Health Crisis” below. We know exactly who is responsible for this action (County Chief Executive Officer and their Assistant Officers), we know what the action is, and the “resolved” language also names a specific county department too – which is a plus!

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT the Board of Supervisors, through the County Chief Executive Officer and Assistant County Executive Officers, will work with the Department of Health Services, all County departments and other community partners, to assess and apply a racial equity lens to internal policies, procedures, practices and protocols; adopt preventive measures, and refine programs to fight institutional, structural and systemic racism and bigotry to promote the health, wellness and equity of Sacramento County’s valued workforce.

Look for the money

Look for those dollar signs. Is there a specific dollar amount being dedicated to an action or given to a specific group?

However, not all effective resolutions will include money. In the example of the City of Evanston, the “Commitment to End Structural Racism and Achieve Racial Equity” from 2019 (Resolution 58-R-19) simply required the city to participate in Racial Equity training and join the Government Alliance for Racial Equity. No money changing hands here.

BUT that resolution was an important precursor to the resolution “Establishing the City of Evanston Reparations Fund and the Reparations Subcommittee” (Resolution 126-R-19), which committed the first $10 million dollars of the City’s Municipal Cannabis Retailers’ Occupation Tax to fund local reparations for housing and economic development programs for Black Evanston residents. Hold up, did you just say “reparations”? Hell yeah we did. More on that here.

Next time you see a resolution, pay special attention to that “resolved” language at the end.

  • Does it use strong language like “will” or “shall”? Is it clear what action is being taken?

  • Is the action assigned to a specific department or position? Is there a committed dollar amount?

If the answer is “no” to all of these questions, that resolution may just be an empty promise.

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