By Jeff Kolkey
Aldermen will consider Mayor Tom McNamara’s plan on Tuesday
ROCKFORD — Mayor Tom McNamara wants to establish an 11-member Community Relations Commission that would serve as an advisory board on issues of social justice, discrimination, equal opportunity, and fair housing.
In what amounts to the first major update in roughly three decades of the city’s human rights ordinance, the city would eliminate its long-dormant Fair Housing Board and Equal Opportunity Hearing Committee to create the new panel.
McNamara said it his hope the new commission “serves to bring the community together to make sure all voices” are heard and holds both the city and its contractors “accountable as it relates to our employment practices and our goal of making sure our workforce reflects our great city diversity.”
The existing boards were established in the 1970s to hear complaints and enforce regulations of discrimination or unfair housing practices. They haven’t been active for more than a decade at least. And today, there are other state and federal mechanisms for those kinds of complaints, Legal Director Nicholas Meyer said.
Aldermen are expected to hear a formal pitch for a rewrite of the human rights ordinance on Tuesday.
The new commission’s focus would shift away from complaints and enforcement, allowing the city legal department to investigate and mediate complaints “like any other code violation,” Meyer said.
“That would not preclude staff from engaging the new commission to help mediate any issues that may arise from time to time, but for the most part we are shifting the focus of enforcement away from the commission,” Meyer said. “The focus of the new commission will be on community engagement and will function as an advisory board to the mayor and council on community issues.”
The new commission would:
- Review the results of investigations into complaints of discrimination, assisting in grievance resolution and advising the city on enforcement of the human rights ordinance.
- Provide an avenue for debate on ordinances concerning prisoner re-entry, fair housing, and discrimination.
- Holding the city and its contractors accountable for adhering to city employment practices and goals for a workforce that reflects the city’s population.
- Provide a forum for city officials to communicate the work they do, turning commissioners into a group of city ambassadors.
- Allow commissioners to advise the city on community issues.
Ald. Jonathan Logemann, D-2, said the commission could give voice to marginalized or voiceless residents. It could serve as an effective group “of our own community residents who will have the whole picture of how the city can better serve its residents.”
“Aldermen and representatives can be guilty of focusing too much on their own wards or districts without acknowledging the bigger picture across the city on how certain policies affect some residents more deeply than others,” Logemann said. “This commission can check that impulse.”
Alderman Tim Durkee, R-1, said he is still reviewing the proposal. He is concerned about the potential for the creation of new and unnecessary layers of bureaucracy.
Alderwoman Venita Hervey, D-5, shared Durkee’s concern and said the city needs to be cautious with any changes to the ordinance. But Hervey said a new, consolidated commission could make sense and she would like to see a more diverse workforce employed by the city and working under a city contract.
“The idea of collapsing the two groups makes sense,” Hervey said. “If you segment things too much it, confuses people.”