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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Commentary: Council and Staff Try To Justify Weakening of Historic Civil Rights Ordinance

If you read the Davis Enterprise last night, you would be led to believe that the historic, anti-discrimination ordinance that passed in 1986 was no longer needed. This justification might make sense if they were removing the entire ordinance, but instead they are removing one portion of text dealing with an enforcement mechanism and then attempting to suture up that hole somewhat artificially.
When it was adopted in 1986, the ordinance offered protections not otherwise available at the time, said Assistant City Manager Kelly Stachowicz.

“According to the city attorney, most of those things are now covered by state and federal law,” she added.

The city now has several mechanisms in place to deal with charges of discrimination, including a police ombudsman hired in September, the city's Mediation and Fair Housing Program and the Police Advisory Committee.

“The subcommittee believes there is an adequate web of resources available to individuals and the best roles for the current Human Relations Commission include listening, information intake and referral,” Souza and Asmundson wrote.
There are several components to this claim that need to be addressed.

First, most of these things are indeed covered by state and federal law. The problem is that unless the case of discrimination is egregious enough to warrant the Attorney General of California or the Justice Department/ FBI to intervene, the enforcement mechanism is a lawsuit in court. As we discussed last week, such a mode is expensive and impractical for most situations that arise. Moreover, as we also discussed, the only recourse available to individuals should not be the court system, this is a chief reason why the HRC was empowered in the first place even lacking the ability to subpoena people to testify.

Second the city may have several mechanisms, but most of them involve the police or housing. Those account for a very small percentage of the types of incidents that the HRC in the past has dealt with. So who is going to handle those type of complaints?

The word we are getting is that those complaints of discrimination would be rolled into the Police Ombudsman, Bob Aaronson's duty. Or at least that is what Councilmember Stephen Souza is reportedly thinking at this time. This is not the first time he has suggested expanding the role of the ombudsman. The problem is that it is not altogether clear that the ombudsman is the proper authority to deal with a number of these kinds of disputes that used to be handled by the HRC. Moreover, the ombudsman is currently working well beyond his part time duties, expanding his role would likely necessitate the city hiring additional staff to do the duties that the HRC used to perform.

The Enterprise Article cites the report from the subcommittee:
“As a public body, the commission is limited to what it can discuss in open session,” Asmundson and Souza wrote. “It is also limited in information it can seek regarding personnel issues, information about police officers, and information it can require other jurisdictions to share. This makes it difficult for the commission to appropriately, thoroughly and fairly mediate/adjudicate individual cases.”
As Mr. Souza ought to know since he was on the HRC, police issues encompass only a very small portion of the types of complaints that the HRC dealt with in the past. Moreover, Souza's report only dealt with again a very narrow issue base--police issues. The disputes that arose last year undoubtedly have led to this decision, but the subcommittee is thinking very narrowly when they justify the removal of the ordinance item based on a single-issue area that has now been dealt with through the hiring of the ombudsman.
"At a recent meeting, commissioners discussed the ordinance, and several said they felt uncomfortable in the role of mediator. Others said to dismantle an important city ordinance was inappropriate."
I find the fact that several members of the commission were uncomfortable with the role of mediator appalling. In past HRCs, it was strongly encouraged that the members go through mediation training--and many did. It is part of the duties that they had and were listed in the description. It would be like a member of the BEDC or the Planning Commission uncomfortable with reading and analyzing zoning laws or development agreements. My response is 'oh well, if you are uncomfortable, resign.' As we found out last year, this body and these laws are bigger than the individuals currently holding the appointments.

There is a perception out there that bodies like the HRC are limited in terms of what they can do to effect change. Nothing is really further from the truth. In 2002 and early 2003, the HRC heard a number of incidents involving racism and bullying at the Davis High School. The HRC, helped organize a community meeting that turned out be a real eye-opener for the entire community. Following the Forum on Bullying and Racism hosted by the HRC, the Davis Enterprise reported:
Talk about racism at Davis High School became real for school district officials Monday night, as emotional students recounted experiences with violence, discrimination and taunting.

Davis Joint Unified School District Board of Education members, Superintendent David Murphy, teachers and Davis City Council members joined more than 100 community members and students at a public forum on racism.

The forum, organized by the Davis Human Relations Commission and held Monday at the Veterans' Memorial Center, produced a long list of possible solutions and nearly five hours of testimony and discussion.

"I thought there was a problem. I had no idea of the depth and breadth of the problem and how deep it seems to be within ... our schools, particularly the high school," Joan Sallee, school board president, said after hearing the students' stories. "And I'm grateful for this meeting." (Davis Enterprise, February 25, 2003).
The result of this meeting was that numerous students came forward with heartfelt and emotional experiences and the school board and superintendent could no longer simply ignore the problem.
Emotional -- at times tearful -- students recounted vivid stories of discrimination and poor treatment on campus by their peers, administrators and staff. Some said they are uncomfortable talking to administrators about experiences. Others accused the school district of unfair punishments.

"There is no word in the English language like (the N-word)," Babajide Olupona, a DHS students and commission member, said, recalling years of discrimination and negative experiences in the schools and community. "No one really understands the impact of that word."

Other students offered detailed accounts of discrimination, vandalism of their property and violence based on race, ethnicity, religion and status.
The result of that meeting was that the Superintendent Murphy worked with members of the HRC to create new programs and new positions to deal with the problem. One of the results of that work is the climate coordinator position, now held by Mel Lewis.

We see from this both the possibilities but the shortcomings of the a body such as the HRC. First, the HRC was able to organize a meeting to educate the community. Second, they were able to work with the Superintendent to create new programs.

But third, as many who read these pages realize, the problems that were identified then, still exist now. Why? There was a lack of follow-through after the crisis abated.

However, the HRC was able to facilitate with the school district new programs, new discipline code language, and a new position. This set the stage for what has happened this year, where all of these aspects have been tightened up due to greater levels of follow-through and commitment by the current school board.

Most importantly, there was key communication fostered and changes enacted without a lawsuit having to be filed. I do not see how the Ombudsman would be able to perform this function.

In October of 2003, four teenagers threw more than 120 eggs at five vehicles--mainly owned by minorities including a gay man.
Russell and several friends, concerned community members and fellow victims of hate crimes scratched out signs and banners to protest the Yolo County District Attorney's Office's willingness to drop hate crime charges against a teen-ager who is charged with vandalizing several cars and a home on Oct. 26, 2003.

One of the victims is Russell, a 27-year-old openly gay UC Davis lab assistant.

"This is silent affirmation to people who commit these type of crimes because they can look and see that nothing is going to happen to them if they get caught," Russell said of the plea offer. "This allows this type of behavior to continue."

Four youths reportedly shouted racist and bigoted remarks as they threw more than 120 eggs at five vehicles and one house early that October morning. One car was owned by Russell; another was owned by a black family. The house was owned by a black family.

Witnesses told police they saw four juveniles throw more than 120 eggs at the two cars. Russell's vehicle suffered more than $4,000 in damage, he said. Liquid from the eggs seeped through into the engine, causing damage, and the paint was also ruined.

Russell was able to pick one of the juveniles out of a photo lineup and he was arrested for the crimes. However, the youth has refused to tell authorities the names of the other three suspects.

"This was devastating to me," Russell said about the hate crime. "Then to have the crimes basically dismissed makes the whole experience exponentially worse."

Raphael Moore, Russell's attorney, said the proposed deal - announced at a pretrial hearing last week - might include dropping the hate crime charges against the juvenile. The 16-year-old could face limited probation and the possibility of having his record expunged in three years if the plea agreement is approved. (Davis Enterprise July 15, 2004).
As a result the HRC took up Mr. Russell's cause. The result was that the HRC worked with the new police chief Jim Hyde, yes the same police chief and the same HRC chair that were at odds a year later. At this time however, the HRC arranged for public meetings where various individuals spoke about the problems of hate crimes. As the result of those meetings, Chief Hyde greatly improved and expanded the department's enforcement of hate crimes legislation.

Even though, Mr. Russell's case was never prosecuted as a hate crime and the juvenile was slapped on the wrist at most, it set in motion a series of changes that will ensure that such events do not occur in the future.

These are but two of the more recent and easily accessible examples of what the HRC has been able to do in the past. Both of these incidents show an effective use of this commission that can both investigate and use community resources to resolve disputes that do not have to go into the legal system as law suits and litigation.

The council now wishes to turn this commission primarily into a listening, intake and referral commission. My experience is that few will come before such a commission. In the past many came before the commission because it was the only body that would listen to their complaints where they believe they were getting a fair hearing. The council wishes for the most part to take this vetting which is often healthy and cathartic out of the public process.

In the end, the council is weakening an historic document to fix a small and limited problem that arose in 2005-06 when the dispute over the proper way in which to deal with a given set of complaints erupted more broadly than it should have. Instead of finding ways to resolve the situation, the council opted for the hatchet approach first purging the HRC, then rewriting its rules, and now changing a landmark civil rights document. This is compounding the problem that began with the inability of either the police chief or the council to recognize the existence of problems and complaints within the community. These actions may quell the public complaints at this time, but they also put a lid on problems rather than solve them, at some point they will erupt again, boiling to the surface. This current council will probably not be in power when they do and they will not have to deal with the mess that they have created.

Unfortunately this is a done deal, fait accompli. And it is a shame that Davis will once again take a dramatic step backwards in their protections against civil rights abuses.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting