The Ann Arbor Human Rights Commission has been looking out for the rights of the city’s residents since the 1970s, but recently the commission has received little support from the City Council and is in danger of being phased out, according to chairwoman Helen Fox.
But Democratic Mayor John Hieftje said the commission is still supported, and that Fox’s claims are unfounded.
The commission’s job is to address any complaints made by citizens in which civil rights appear to have been violated, as well as to make suggestions to the City Council regarding solutions to more general human rights violations. The commission consists of nine volunteer members who are appointed by the mayor and city council.
According to Fox, a professor in the Sweetland Writing Center and Residential College, the commission is facing several major problems that mostly stem from budget cuts and lack of support from the City Council. Fox said she is even concerned that she will not be reappointed to her position as chair. Fox’s term is technically over, but she will continue to serve as chairwoman until someone new is appointed or she is reappointed.
Democratic councilmember Joan Lowenstein said Fox will not be reappointed.
“I think if people serve their term, sometimes it’s time for some new blood,” Lowenstein said.
Hieftje said he did not yet know whether Fox would be reappointed, but explained that the Council ultimately decides whether or not a person is appointed.
“I make the decision whether the name is put forward, but, if I don’t think the person is going to have the support of council members, then I don’t put their name forward,” Hieftje said.
Fox said one of the problems facing the commission is the elimination of their office staff.
The number of staff who deal with citizen complaints was cut this year, leaving citizens without a good way to reach the commission if they feel their rights have been violated, Fox said.
But Lowenstein said the commission is functioning fine without its usual staff.
“(The commission) doesn’t really need a staff because citizen issues are handled within the Human Resources Department now,” Lowenstein said, referring to a separate office in the city government. “If the commission wanted to, it’s very easy to set up a hotline or e-mail where people can send in complaints. The commission members have been so devoted to simply talking, they haven’t been thinking about doing anything.”
Hieftje said the commission often goes months without receiving any citizen complaints. Previously though, the commission has initiated such projects as the Ann Arbor racial profiling study conducted last year.
Fox has also said a lack of new appointees to the commission suggests the mayor might be trying to phase out the commission. Fox said currently the commission only has five members.
“We had strong evidence that the mayor was intentionally letting the Human Rights Commission die by not appointing new members. We didn’t know specifically why he was doing this, but we could only conclude that some of the things we had brought to his attention and the attention of the council were difficult issues that they didn’t agree with,” Fox said.
“Basically, she’s wrong,” Hieftje said. “The city has nearly 60 boards and commissions, and it’s a chore to stay up on reappointing people to those commissions. I put forward two more names last Monday night and I’ll be putting forward another name next Monday night. It’s pretty silly to say that there was any effort to let the commission go away.”
Fox said the commission is not working on projects due to its lack of members.
“Right now, we are so stymied by our lack of members and our lack of staff that we are not involved in ways that we should be,” Fox said.