Human relations commission nears completion, pauses for input

UPDATE: The commission passed an ordinance providing for the establishment of the Human Relations Commission on November 2, 2021.

The ACC government is on the verge of establishing a human relations commission which would fulfill a longstanding request of the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement.

Mokah and Knowa Johnson, co-founders of the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, made two demands while organizing a year of protests in 2016 together with Athens for Everyone, a progressive advocacy group. These were: a comprehensive anti-discrimination ordinance and the establishment of human relations commission (sometimes refered to as a civil rights committee).

Protest against discrimination
Protest against General Beauregards in 2016, organized by the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement.

The ACC Commission passed the anti-discrimination ordinance earlier this year. At the same time, Mayor Kelly Girtz assigned the commission’s Legislative Review Committee the task of bringing forward a draft ordinance to form a human relations commission within 60 days.

What’s a human relations commission?

A human relations commission is an advisory body that will act as a bridge between the community and the government. According to the commission’s agenda item, it will encourage dialog around equity and inclusion in Athens, both within the body itself and across the broader community. It will also assist residents with discrimination complaints and provide support as they seek redress.

Since the process of making a discrimination complaint is often daunting, some commissioners feel the new body is an essential complement to the anti-discrimination ordinance they passed in August.

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Furthermore, the human relations commission will provide community education through town hall meetings and make policy recommendations to the mayor and commission. What it won’t do, at least for now, is act as a quasi-judicial body which conducts investigations into complaints or holds court-like hearings where grievances could be aired. 

These initial decisions on the human relation commission’s structure were made by five commissioners on the Legislative Review Committee (Allison Wright, Ovita Thornton, Carol Myers, Mariah Parker and Jesse Houle) over the course of five meetings from August 26 to September 30. Wright, chair of the committee, initiated this whirlwind of activity to meet the mayor’s 60-day timeline with significant assistance from Krystle Cobran, who runs the ACC Office of Equity and Inclusion.

A flexible commission structure

As mentioned above, the Legislative Review Committee decided on an advisory structure as opposed to a quasi-judicial one. This will make it easier for those of varying backgrounds and experiences to serve on the human relations commission; if it were quasi-judicial, commission members would generally need a background in law, mediation or investigation to be considered.

However, the Legislative Review Committee agreed that the human relations commission itself should make recommendations on these kinds of questions, even about their own structure. This leaves the door open to switching to a quasi-judicial model in the future.

During their meetings last month, the Legislative Review Committee heard from a number of human relations commissions that already exist in other southeastern cities. Representatives from Atlanta, Raleigh, NC and Asheville, NC spoke to commissioners about their experiences with similar bodies, which varied widely from very good to very disappointing. On the disappointing end, Asheville’s human relations commission, started in 2017, is still very disorganized, lacks a work plan and has failed to gain residents’ confidence, according to one Asheville official.

On the other end, a representative from Raleigh’s Department of Equity and Inclusion (which has eight full-time staff members) explained that their human relations commission was created in 1977 and has become an integral and trusted part of the community. From these varied experiences, commissioners tried to glean best practices to guide them in their task to create Athens’ own version of this idea.

Pausing for community input

Wright and Cobran’s rapid pace laying out the groundwork for a human relations commission is to be commended, but for now, they have decided to slow down so they can gather community input before holding a vote.

This item was placed on the commission’s agenda for their October 5 voting meeting with a recommendation from the Legislative Review Committee to hold for a month, which was generally agreed upon. This allowed for public comment not only on October 5, but also for the current agenda cycle, which starts at the agenda-setting meeting on October 19 and concludes at the voting session on November 2.

You can examine the proposed ordinance for the creation of a human relations commission here. After checking it out, you can make your comments either in person at city hall during the two meetings listed above or by using this form to email all 10 commissioners.

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