Editorial: Preserve citizen civil-rights panels

  • Updated: January 26, 2012 - 9:29 PM

Effective human-rights groups are beneficial to communities.

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Are human-rights and civil-rights commissions -- citizen panels created to educate about diversity and review discrimination issues -- necessary anymore?

A recent Star Tribune article documented how some Minnesota cities are moving such groups into less-controversial duties, giving them less power and, in a few cases, dismantling them altogether.

That's not the right direction to go.

With diversity increasing in many Minnesota communities, the need for active, effective human-rights panels is greater than ever. The fact that more cities are having conversations about equity demonstrates the need.

There are about 60 county and city human-rights panels in Minnesota, according to the state League of Human Rights Commissions.

Commissioners are appointed by mayors and city councils and volunteer to serve. State law allows but does not require counties and municipalities to set up the commissions.

During the past few months, officials in Golden Valley, Plymouth, Hopkins and Crow Wing County either dumped or restructured their groups.

Understandably, in these difficult economic times, municipal and county governments are looking for ways to trim spending. Yet in most cases the volunteer panels are not a major expense.

Part of the problem for rights panels is that they are created by cities and often hear complaints about city operations. When the panels offer criticism or advice officials don't want to hear, the cities can dismantle the commissions.

And truthfully, a handful of commissions have been their own worst enemies. Infighting, unprofessional behavior and dysfunction have contributed to their downfalls.

Yet many communities need a safe forum for citizens to discuss concerns. Immigrants, women, people of color, gays and lesbians and other groups may not feel comfortable going to authorities with their issues.

When citizen commissions operate properly, they can be extremely beneficial to communities. The panels can be sounding boards for those who feel they have nowhere else to turn.

They serve an important educational function when convening community dialogs about sensitive issues to help neighbors better understand one another.

And they save individuals and taxpayers money when they mediate disputes.

Resolving a complaint of unfair treatment involving an employer or the city at the local level can prevent a case from going to state or federal offices or to court. Once disputes rise to those levels, they can last years and become very costly.

Eliminating human-rights councils doesn't make persistent equity problems go away. Cities and counties should face the issues head-on and work to eliminate discrimination and unfair practices.

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  • TWO VIEWS


    "Nine times out of ten, commissions are effective at bringing issues to light. ... We need to be more engaged in equity issues around education, housing [and] employment ... to assure that our systems are fair.''


    -Kevin Lindsey, Minnesota Commissioner of Human Rights.


    • • •

    "... We've never had a complaint linked to a human-rights issue. I felt they were trying to create an issue where there wasn't one.''


    -Plymouth Mayor Kelli Slavik, arguing that the city's former human-rights commission wrongly took up a rent complaint from elderly Russian immigrants. The city replaced the citizen group with a committee that includes citizens, the mayor and the police chief.

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