A group of concerned citizens in Anoka is circulating a petition to get the north metro city to reinstate its Human Rights Commission.

The group of five Anoka residents who have not previously been on the commission's board hope to collect enough signatures to force the City Council to revisit the issue. The council voted in March to dissolve the commission, saying the organization would be better served operating as an independent nonprofit rather than as an advisory group under the auspices of the city. It later voted to remove all references to the Human Rights Commission from city code.

"It has been used as a political pawn," Susan Dergantz, a resident leading the petition drive, said of the Human Rights Commission. "We have a large marginalized population that is not represented in our community. We want to give everybody in the community a voice and be welcomed."

The commission appeared to be safe in August when the council backed away from shutting it down due to inactivity and voted 4-1 in favor of keeping it.

But the council reversed course in 2021.

City Council Member Elizabeth Barnett, who introduced the resolution to disband it, said at that March meeting that the commission has struggled to operate within the government's structure, and had a list of goals that promote "highly politically charged and controversial" topics such as free college education, climate change, free health care and the possibility of Anoka becoming a sanctuary city. That makes it more of a special-interest group that should operate independent of the city, she said.

"I am fearful that the Human Rights Commission will serve only to further divide the community," Barnett said at the meeting.

Dergantz said some of those topics were just suggestions put forth by community members for the commission to tackle.

As a city entity, the commission and its board members were under the direction of the City Council. But there was not much direction or support from the council, said Eric Bobick, another resident helping with petition referendum. Still, he said, the group wants it to remain an official city commission.

"They never gave the commission a real chance to get going," he said. "They didn't do anything but say this is not the direction to go."

To be successful, the group must gather signatures from 3% of Anoka residents who were registered to vote in the last regular municipal election. That equates to 353 votes, said Assistant City Manager Amy Oehlers.

As of Thursday afternoon, the group had collected about 55 signatures, Dergantz said. They plan to set up a tent in downtown Anoka on Saturday to collect signatures and also plan to go door-to-door.

Petitions must be turned in to the city by May 14 and signatures verified by the city. If successful, the referendum will go to the City Council. The council can uphold its decision to end the commission or let voters decide in a special election or the next regular municipal election in 2022, Oehlers said.

"The City is working closely with the sponsor of this group so that they clearly understand the process," Oehlers said.

Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768