Golden Valley mayor wants human rights task force

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA
  • Star Tribune
  • January 10, 2012 - 2:47 PM

Golden Valley likely will have an active human rights commission again, but only after its role has been clarified, new Mayor Shep Harris says.

Harris became mayor on Jan. 1, a couple of weeks after the City Council fired commission members for allegedly putting the city in legal jeopardy by suggesting that a task force be set up to help prevent use of unnecessary force by police officers.

The council move, by a 4-1 vote, suspended the activities of the state's oldest human rights commission and put its future in doubt.

But Harris, who served on the St. Louis Park Human Rights Commission when he was a resident of that city, said last week that he believes such a group has a place in Golden Valley. He said he hopes to work with the City Council to create a task force that would reach out to people to define the commission's role.

"I think there's a need for a human rights commission," Harris said. "I'd like the city to ... figure out, what do we want to do? Do we want advice on shaping policy, or working with residents and other communities to create educational opportunities on diversity and multiculturalism?"

Harris and new council member Joanie Clausen replace two of the City Council members who appeared most upset by the commission's suggestion to focus on police conduct. Harris defeated 10-year incumbent Mayor Linda Loomis, and Clausen replaced Bob Shaffer, who did not seek re-election.

Clausen said what happened with the commission was "unfortunate."

"I'm not really sure what direction this will take," she said. "I know we will discuss it, and I know it will be important to include the community and see what direction they want us to go."

Things soured after an October meeting at which the commission decided to ask the council to form a task force to "identify and adopt best practices that prevent the use of unnecessary force by Golden Valley police officers."

Since 2008, Golden Valley has settled two police cases, one involving use of a Taser and the other involving use of excessive force, for a total of about $1.3 million. In September, a woman was shot to death by a city police officer after she was stopped while speeding on Interstate 394 and raised a handgun in the direction of the officer.

Commission members said they brought up the police task force idea because residents asked them to. But some council members were furious, saying the freeway shooting was still under investigation and that the commission had opened the city to legal liability.

On Dec. 20, four of the five council members voted to repudiate the commission's action and dismissed all four members.

Harris said he had not had a chance to formally talk about the commission with council members, but "I get the sense they are supportive of the commission going forward." He said a task force would not only lay out clear goals but could revitalize the group, too.

Golden Valley's commission, which began in 1965 and at one time had as many as 16 members, is supposed to have up to nine members but had just four when its members were dismissed.

Busy residents

"I think it's been a struggle," Harris said. "Residents are busy these days. ... One of the last things they have time for is to serve on a commission. I hope a task force will be a recruitment tool to find people willing to roll up their sleeves and move forward."

As a group that answers to the City Council, the commission represents both the council and outside voices, the mayor said. While the concerns the commission raised reflected questions in the community, the "myths" and rumors he has heard from residents about police show a need for community education about police training and the kind of challenges police face every day, Harris said.

"I think there's collective frustration on all sides, and unfortunately it boiled over," he said. "I hope there's a way that all the concerns can be addressed in a sensitive way to promote awareness, in a way that doesn't get personal and doesn't embarrass residents or city officials."

Harris, who is a lobbyist for the Minneapolis law firm Fredrikson & Byron, said his view of the commission's role is "more about the commission recognizing and celebrating the cultural strength" of a city that is much more diverse than when the commission was founded almost 50 years ago.

"Others feel it should be more of a watchdog," he said. "I can understand that, too. There's a time and a place for that."

If a task force is formed, Harris said he hopes it involves people from all parts of Golden Valley and reaches out to other rights groups and the faith community. He said he would like to see members named to the commission before the end of the year, though what happens is ultimately up to the entire City Council.

"I think if we have the right leadership on the commission, and on the City Council and with city staff, it can work out very well together," he said.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan

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