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A mass exodus from Chatham's Human Relations Commission

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Near the end of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners meeting Monday night, the chairman of the Human Relations Commission, Norman Clark, spoke of the difficulties the HRC has faced since January when the commissioners voted to eliminate its executive director position, formerly held by Esther Coleman. Then, one by one, Clark named the members of the HRC as each resigned his or her post: Ilana Dubester, Ivan Remnitz, David Scotton, Mary Harris, Roy Barnes, Patricia Learned, Jerry Powell and Clark himself. Martin Spitzer's term was already due to expire.

The resignations were intended as a protest. As the only paid staff position, the director's full-time job was to implement the HRC's ideas and provide logistical support. Since the 3-2 vote, with the Republican majority voting to ax the executive directorship, the HRC has struggled to be effective. Clark says the HRC used the seven months since the vote to "determine if it was possible to continue on. We didn't want to have an impulse reaction."

Ultimately, however, Clark said that "with everybody being volunteers and having other obligations, it was real difficult to do the work the director had been doing."

The directorship provided a resource for human relations issues in Chatham, which also is home to a large Latino community, particularly in Siler City. Since the HRC was established in 2000, the Hispanic population has almost doubled, growing at 2.5 times the rate of the general population. According to the 2010 census, minorities represent nearly a quarter of the county's population.

Commissioner Sally Kost, who serves as liaison to the HRC, praised Coleman as being "very active in the community, and very, very visible."

Kost also recalls a November 2010 report researched and presented by Coleman titled "Issues Impacting Colored People in Chatham County." The report concluded that neglecting diversity issues can incur significant costs on the taxpayer dollar. For example, it cited a Gallup study in arguing that a cultural insensitivity in the work environment created low morale and costly inefficiency among workers.

The report also points out that the national unemployment rate for black males is 20 percent. One of Coleman's duties as executive director had been to periodically send out job postings and provide guidance on a successful job search. It was a task Coleman calls the directorship's "most appreciated," one that prompted citizens to thank her via email or personally.

The directorship was created in 2007 after the HRC convinced the board of commissioners to devote resources to the position. Ivan Remnitz, who served on the HRC until 2006 and was reappointed last year, distinctly remembers the years before the directorship. "We would just talk about the problems and make reports, but nothing ever happened," he says. "We accomplished absolutely nothing."

Remnitz is adamant that the county's human relations needs exceed the capabilities of the HRC alone. The HRC deals with issues like racism, problems with fair housing, disparities in education and gaps in health care, as well as addressing specific complaints. But because the HRC meets only monthly, says Remnitz, the all-volunteer board was a "do-nothing body."

However, Remnitz says, "things completely changed once Esther [Coleman] started." In addition to Coleman's work as the county's human relations staff, her support allowed the HRC to conceive and oversee a number of projects. As part of a contest inaugurated last year, more than 200 students in grades 3–12 submitted essays about environmental and social justice. For the past three years, the HRC has recognized local groups and individuals in its Human Relations Awards.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Brian Bock, however, says he's "thought all along" that the HRC could function without a director. "The director was getting paid $80,000 a year with benefits. I don't think that's a wise use of county money."

In comparing Chatham's HRC directorship with similar positions in other counties, Wake County does not have such a post, according to a spokesperson; it delegates human relations duties among many departments. Orange and Durham counties did not respond to requests for information by press deadline.

The reduction of the Human Relations Commission is part of a wider push to standardize the county boards. Commissioner Bock underlined the need for each board to be accountable. The HRC is the only board with a paid staff position; Bock says the county staff is available for logistical and research support. He argues that the HRC "could still do [its current projects] if they really wanted to."

The goal seems to redefine all county boards as purely advisory bodies. As the Indy reported June 29, the commissioners reduced the county's Environmental Review Board to an advisory capacity by removing it from the development oversight process.

The shift in direction was clearly felt in the HRC. "Commissioner Bock's vision was not consistent with what we wanted to do and had been doing," Clark says, and contributed directly to the board's mass resignation.

Remnitz predicts that the HRC will return to a "do-nothing body." Commissioner Kost says that "without a paid professional to do the legwork, they were given an impossible task."

Commissioners are accepting applicants for all 12 seats. "We've got a pretty big county," says Bock. "And we've got people to fill this commission and fill those positions."

Apply for the HRC at www.chathamnc.org. Deadline is Sept. 9.

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