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Human Relations Commission Has New Director, but Where Will It Go from Here?

By Doug Trapp · March 9th, 2000 · Burning Questions
For the first time in nearly two years, the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission (CHRC) has a director, or at least a new interim director: Cecil Thomas, former president of the Sentinels Police Association.

But a few Cincinnati City Council members were surprised by the late February hiring, saying at the Feb. 24 council meeting they thought the CHRC wasn't supposed to hire anyone until council approved a clear mission for the organization. That task still isn't finished, despite 18 months of discussion and a months-long study by Flying V Associates, a private group partially comprised of former CHRC board members.

Created in 1943 as the Mayor's Friendly Relations Committee, the CHRC was designed to promote harmony and tolerance within the city. In 1965, as race riots swept across the nation, the organization was renamed the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission and charged with improving race relations. The CHRC operates independently from the city and is paid through a $460,000 contract that specifies its mission, which includes, among other items:

· Monitoring hate crimes and mediating and resolving disputes;

· Providing youth development, prevention and community policing programs;

· And providing monthly written reports to the city council and city manager.

Two years ago, 25-year CHRC Director Arzell Nelson retired. A few months later, Councilmembers Dwight Tillery, Charles Winburn and Minette Cooper proposed giving the CHRC subpoena powers so it could become a one-stop investigation and enforcement center for race-related matters in Cincinnati.

The CHRC's 15 board members were upset, because none of them were consulted on the plan, and almost half of them resigned in protest, according to Ernie Waits Jr., chair of the 12-member CHRC board of directors. The city solicitor later notified council that it could not grant subpoena powers to a non-city agency.

Since then, city council commissioned an independent study of the CHRC to determine its future.

Released in December, it was unveiled to a less-than-friendly crowd at a public hearing in early January chaired by new Councilmember Alicia Reece.

The study provided a mixed message. For example, it said there might no longer be a need for the CHRC or another group to take a leading role in all aspects of improving race relations, but that the study shouldn't be construed as calling for the end of the CHRC.

Waits questioned the timing of the study, conducted when the CHRC was at its weakest, he said. After Nelson retired, city council removed funding for a CHRC director, reducing its budget to its current $460,000. Thomas' salary is coming from another CHRC vacancy.

At the Feb. 24 council meeting Winburn said that he thought the CHRC wasn't supposed to hire a director until council came up with a clear mission for it. Cooper and Mayor Charlie Luken agreed, although none could recall if a motion was made or if there was some sort of verbal mandate.

Waits later said the CHRC was supposed to hire a director after the Flying V study was finished, which it did. Waits said he's now interviewing for a permanent director.

Reece called for a vote at the Feb. 24 meeting to assign some specific duties for the CHRC, such as continuing its community monitors program.

"I'm very frustrated," she said. "We've got to be a council of action. But on this particular issue, we've been burying it."

Although nearly every council member applauded Reece's initiative, none except Todd Portune backed her formal motion introduced at the March 1 council meeting. Other council members, including Cooper, said the motion and the CHRC in general needed more consideration.

"Y'all can't change the council overnight," Winburn said, adding that he used to think he could. "It takes nine people to pull this council together."

At that same meeting, Councilmember Paul Booth introduced a successful motion to create a committee to issue a report on the CHRC study. The mayor will appoint the members, who will then issue a preliminary report in 45 days and a final report in 90 days. Booth hopes the committee can provide some sort of conclusion to the two-year uncertainty that has surrounded the agency.

Waits called the new committee "kind of silly."

"I don't really know what it accomplishes," Portune said.

Meanwhile, Councilman Phil Heimlich wants to bid out the CHRC's services to see if the city could get a better deal for its $460,000. While Heimlich said the CHRC's community monitors seem to be doing a good job, he wants to determine whether the CHRC's work would0 be better handled by other non-profit groups such as the Inclusion Network, which integrates the disabled into the work force.

"I find it difficult to believe we're getting $460,000 in benefits from the agency," Heimlich said.

Waits said bidding out CHRC's services would only divide the community's non-profit groups, instead of uniting them to work toward common goals.

"I don't view that as healthy competition," Waits said. "I view that as brother against brother."

Heimlich responded by saying that monopolies such as the CHRC never favor competition.

So, 18 months after a failed attempt to change the CHRC, the jury is still out on its future.

"I think the conclusions have not been determined yet," Cooper said.

Meanwhile, the weather is getting warmer, which means more people will be out on the streets, leading to more conflicts. The time to define the CHRC's mission is sooner rather than later, according to Waits. It's better to prevent racial problems through education than to try to resolve them after they've happened, he said.

"If we save one person's life, what's it worth?," Waits asked. "One hundred thousand dollars? Fifty thousand dollars? Five thousand dollars?"



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