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Human rights commissions are losing power, influence

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA
  • Star Tribune
  • January 17, 2012 - 4:02 PM

Changing times are prompting some Minnesota cities to clamp down on their human rights commissions, pushing the groups into less controversial duties, giving them less power and sometimes eliminating them altogether.

Divisive politics, lack of communication between commissions and city councils and a feeling among some that discrimination is not the problem it once was all play a role. In some Twin Cities suburbs, commissions have limped along without enough people to fill vacancies.

"The issues are difficult. And [political positions] are getting more intransigent," said Minnesota Commissioner of Human Rights Kevin Lindsey. "I'm not all that surprised that there are not a lot of people rushing to the front of the line to serve on these groups."

Last month, city officials fired the Golden Valley commission, the oldest of the nearly 50 such groups scattered across the state. Crow Wing County dumped its commission last fall. In 2009, dysfunction prompted Hopkins' commission to be replaced with a multicultural committee. After a controversy over rising rents for elderly immigrants at a city-owned housing project, Plymouth last year converted its all-citizen commission to a committee with a membership that includes city officials.

While it's been a difficult year for commissions, said Cameron Cegelske, president of the Minnesota League of Human Rights Commissions, disputes tend to be driven by local politics. He sees new interest among some suburbs about setting up commissions.

"The role of these groups has always in the end been advisory," he said. "It's a fine line that we walk. ... There is always the requirement to tiptoe and be diplomatic."

A clash of views

Local human rights commissions were born during the civil rights ferment of the 1960s. State law requires that commissions, if established, be "for the purpose of dealing with discrimination." Although the law allows local commissions to mediate discrimination claims, only bigger groups such as those in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Bloomington do so.

Commission members are chosen by city or county officials, and the groups operate at the pleasure of their host government. The conflicts have come when commissions take on issues more sensitive than annual essay contests about diversity for kids or diversity and cultural celebrations.

Golden Valley's commission, founded in 1965, last fall asked the City Council to set up a task force to look at ways to help prevent use of unnecessary force by police. Angry council members thought the commission had put the city at legal risk with a discussion about police conduct, and they removed commissioners last month with a 4-1 vote.

Although the Golden Valley group can have as many as nine members, there were only four when they were dismissed. Longtime member Marion Helland, 84, said that the commission once had 16 members. "Tension and apathy and discouragement" had shrunk membership, she said. "People had other things to do with their time. The people who have the passion to join the commission are activists at heart."

Helland, who in 1965 taught in black schools in the South, says she thinks "the passion for human rights is not as widespread as it was then" and that some city officials believe human rights is "a nuisance and a bother."

In Plymouth, the committee that replaced the city's commission has four citizen members and three from city government, including the mayor and police chief. Mayor Kelli Slavik said the change was made to "redirect the work" done by the group, which she said was pressing to mediate disputes. That authority exists at the state level, Slavik said, and there was no need to duplicate it at the city level.

"I've been with the city for 14 years and we never had a complaint linked to a human rights issue," she said. "I felt they were trying to create an issue where there wasn't one."

Virginia Klevorn, who chaired the commission, said the change came after she spoke at a city meeting on behalf of a group of elderly Russian immigrants, many with limited incomes and poor English skills, who objected to a rent increase in a city-owned apartment building.

"The city loved us until this issue came up," she said. "I think they believed we were sticking our nose where it didn't belong."

Slavik said she didn't consider the rent increase to be a human rights issue. Klevorn applied for appointment to the new city committee. She was not chosen.

Watchdogs and educators

While commissions have sometimes guided controversial changes through city halls, the 17 cities that have passed domestic partner registrations haven't all had commissions, said OutFront Minnesota's Phil Duran.

Duran, a former member of the Minneapolis Commission on Civil Rights, said he believes that it might be time for commissions to shift from the 1960s mode of telling people what they can't do to working on "how to make their city the kind of community they want."

"There certainly can be a role to examine issues that are challenging," he said. On the other hand, "these commissions can serve a tremendous value in terms of building connections" between diverse groups.

In New Hope, where 65 languages are spoken, commission Chairwoman Peg Flaherty said her group has not dealt with discrimination complaints. The commission recently held popular "Know Your Neighbor" sessions with the city's Liberian, Hmong and Latino residents. A program on bullying is being planned.

Board membership had flagged until four new members boosted the count to seven members of a possible 10.

"We did have difficulty getting them on, but I am so energized and excited now," Flaherty said.

Lindsey said that although commissions are advisory, they can steer community conversation, and they still act as watchdogs, he said.

He said he thinks that role will grow more important in an increasingly diverse state. Helland agreed, pointing to challenges associated with the state's growing senior population and some not-so-new issues, too.

"There's always something creeping in that needs somebody's attention," she said. "It seems to me that that's what human rights commissions should be about."

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

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