Olmsted County’s Human Rights Commission is pushing back against new guidelines for its operations.
“I’m a little bit concerned about the change in the language of the mission and vision,” Commissioner Chairwoman Kindra Ramaker said, noting that changing the bylaws lacked public discussion.
The Olmsted County commissioners approved a new set of bylaws on Nov. 5 without discussion during the board’s regular meeting.
Deputy Olmsted County Administrator Pete Giesen said the proposed changes were developed by staff under the direction of county commissioners on the county’s administrative committee.
The changes are part of a larger effort to review and standardize bylaws for all the county’s advisory boards and commissions; the Human Rights Commission is the first group to see a new set of bylaws approved by the county commissioners.
Plans called for the Human Rights Commission to review the changes during a planned Oct. 17 meeting, but a lack of members attending the meeting meant the opportunity to comment didn’t happen.
As a result, Human Rights Commission members voted to reject the bylaws during their November meeting.
The core concern revolved around the advocacy role of the commission.
“Advocating was an action verb in the current bylaws and that was changed and the scope of what we will be doing really focuses around educating the community around what human rights are and advising the county board of commissioners,” Ramaker said. “That’s a significant change in the scope of this group.”
County Board Member Sheila Kiscaden, who sits on the county board administrative committee and serves as a non-voting member of the Human Rights Commission, said advocacy isn’t totally stripped from the group’s duties.
She said the group can still advocate for action by taking concerns to county commissioners. She cited work done by the county’s Public Health Services Advisory Board to push for raising the age to purchase tobacco products, which commissioners approved earlier this year.
County Administrator Heidi Welsch also said advocacy is part of being an advisory group.
“We want them to be in a position to review what we are doing,” she said, noting the Human Rights Commission could work with county commissioners advocate for a variety of issues.
“What the board doesn’t want is for an advisory group to strike out on its own,” she said.
The Human Rights Commission did just that last year, when it sent a letter to Rochester city officials criticizing the process related to the search for a new police chief. During that search, the only black applicant among the three finalists for the post was removed from consideration following questions about his application.
The Human Rights Commission’s input came in the form of a letter drafted during a last-minute special meeting and put on county letterhead without the knowledge of county commissioners, including Mark Thein and Gregg Wright, who were non-voting members of the Human Rights Commission at the time.
'Where was our voice?'
Commission Member Karen MacLaughlin noted last month the process could have been improved.
“The decision to put it on Olmsted County letterhead was a bad choice,” she said.
She also raised concerns about the county’s process following that decision, noting it needed improvement, as well.
“Where was our voice in the process (for revising the bylaws)?” she asked.
Shortly after the letter was sent to city officials, the Human Rights Commission discussed an option that could have led to a broader advocacy role. It involved breaking direct ties with the county and operating as a county-supported entity.
Kiscaden referred to the option during the November meeting.
“We said to you, starting 18 months ago: Do you want to be the Olmsted County Human Rights Commission or do you want to be the Human Rights Commission of Olmsted County?” she said, noting the latter would be an independent board outside the county structure.
In the earlier conversations and the most recent discussion, none of the commissioners expressed a specific desire to break with the county.
They did, however, balk at the current direction.
“This change was almost forced on us,” said Commission Member Menal Abaddi, who led the vote to oppose the revisions. “We didn’t get a voice in making these changes.”
Suliman El Amin agreed with his fellow members of the Human Rights Commission, noting the changes raise concerns.
“We’re losing some autonomy here,” he said. “With a greater voice, you do lose some autonomy because you are speaking on behalf of the county and the county commissioners.”
Senior Assistant Olmsted County Attorney Tom Canan said the commission members’ objection isn’t expected to change the status of the bylaws.
He said the resolution creating the Olmsted County Human Rights Commission in 1998, when it replaced a similar city commission, indicated it would “have such duties as may be assigned by the County Board.” Since county commissioners continue to decide who serves on the commission, he they have indicated they plan to maintain some oversight of the commission, which would include approval of its bylaws.
“Given that, the county has concluded that the recent updates to the commission bylaws, which the County Board approved, will be the bylaws which the county considers to be in effect for the commission going forward,” he said.
Those bylaws include a process to revise the guidelines with the approval of county commissioners.
The Human Rights Commission’s next scheduled meeting is Dec. 19.