January 27, 2009 in City

City revamps human rights policy

Some complaints will be heard by state panel
By The Spokesman-Review

Individual complaints regarding human rights violations no longer will be considered by the city’s Human Rights Commission.

The Spokane City Council voted unanimously on Monday to prohibit the commission from investigating reports of specific abuse, largely because the volunteer group lacks training. The new rules approved by the council require that complaints received by the commission that name an “individual or entity from a specific incident” be forwarded to the state’s Human Rights Commission.

Officials said the state is much better equipped to handle investigations because it has a paid and trained staff.

Among those who spoke in favor of the changes were Spokane Human Rights Commissioners Dennis Cronin, who led the effort to make the changes, and Julia Pelc.

The commission’s old rules didn’t specifically address how it should handle investigations. The last high-profile case it took up was in 2005, when it ruled that former Mayor Jim West behaved inappropriately by trying to pressure a man that he appointed to the Human Rights Commission to have sex with him. But even then questions arose over what authority the commission had over the complaint.

Other changes to the law include reducing membership on the body from 15 to 9. Three will be required to live in each of the city’s three City Council districts.

“I believe it’s a much more workable group,” said Cronin, adding that the changes give the panel a much clearer understanding of its authority and responsibilities.

Mayor Mary Verner said the commission will focus more on educating the public, gathering data and giving the public a place to air concerns.

Recently, the commission’s activity has declined. As of this week, the city’s Web site lists 11 vacancies on the commission.

Former Human Rights Commissioner Jack Poole testified in front of the City Council on Monday that several hate groups are active in the city. Now, more than ever, an active and engaging commission is essential, said Poole, who supported the changes. “It is very easy to concentrate on the good and ignore that which is under the rug,” he said.

Verner started the effort to change the commission by appointing a task force, led by Cronin, to examine an overhaul.

“The city of Spokane, as you heard from Jack Poole, is not without its human rights problems,” Verner said. “We need to acknowledge that and then help reinvigorate the commission so they can address those problems.”

Jonathan Brunt can be reached at jonathanb@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5442.

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