Human rights group returns to City Hall after 11-year absence

Nov. 27, 2008 (From the Nov. 14, edition of Street Roots)

New commission has the daunting task of protecting and advocating for the human rights of all Portlanders. (By Amanda Waldroupe, Contributing Writer)

Del Monte. James Chasse. Accusations of racism during the Cesar Chavez debate. A homeless protest in front of City Hall. “No Section 8.” What’s missing from the list?
A place where individuals can bring their grievances and charges of discrimination, bigotry, hate crimes and injustice to find redress.

That changed on Nov. 5, when the Human Rights Commission, charged with advocating for the human rights of Portland’s citizens, held its first meeting since being reassembled by Portland’s City Council in January.

“You folks have an important job in front of you,” Mayor Tom Potter said at the beginning of the meeting.

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The commission is composed of 11 to 15 volunteer community members appointed by the City Council. It is managed by a new city bureau, the Office of Human Relations, and is responsible for tackling issues of discrimination, bigotry, racism and other human rights abuses in Portland and ensuring, Potter says, “that people with the smallest voice can be heard.”

Portland has had an Office of Human Relations in the past. Founded in 1948, the office was a city bureau until 1997 when it became incorporated into the Office of Neighborhood Involvement. In 2003, it was cut entirely from the city’s budget.
“That was a kind of blow to the community,” says Dan Handelman, a volunteer with Portland Copwatch. The very existence, Handelman says, of an agency that publicly addressed issues regarding police accountability, transgender rights, and human rights offenses was important.

“They took up several issues that weren’t really being considered by City Council,” Handelman says.

Portland lagged behind many cities in Oregon and the Northwest that had similar human rights offices until Mayor Tom Potter made it a priority of his administration to recreate the office.

“I was frankly very excited that the city is doing this again,” says Multnomah County Commissioner Jeff Cogen, who is serving as the interim chair of the commission.
However, the commission may already have one hand tied behind its back, because it lacks something many think is crucial in order for it to be successful: an enforcement mechanism.

Elliott Bronstein, public information coordinator for Seattle’s Office for Civil Rights, says that an effective enforcement mechanism has proven important for Seattle.
According to Bronstein, Seattle’s enforcement division allows the office to process a complaint of an individual who feels they have been discriminated against, investigate the legal merit of that complaint, then negotiate some sort of settlement between the individual and the offending party.

“An effective way for (an individual) to seek redress or a solution is through an enforcement mechanism,” Bronstein says.

The director of the new Office of Human Relations is Maria Lisa Johnson, the former executive director of the Portland-based advocacy organization, the Latino Network. Johnson was not available for comment, but according to the commission’s Web site, the commission will not pursue enforcement because “we found that criminal and civil avenues for formal complaints, investigations and litigation already exist.”
That means if people want to pursue enforcement of laws they feel have been violated, people can call the police or file a civil suit.

Rather than making enforcement a priority, the commission will focus on advocacy and intervention. It is a potential weakness for the commission to have such a limitation, and may relegate the commission to being an office of hot-air more than effective action.
“Without an enforcement mechanism, you can cajole (and) you can try to persuade,” Bronstein says.

Jason Renaud, a volunteer with the Mental Health Association of Portland, thinks giving a bureaucratic entity enforcement powers would be unnecessary and useless.
“The notion of getting satisfaction for real harm outside of an independent agency, like a court, is naïve,” Renaud says.

Handelman hopes that the commission focuses on human rights “of any kind,” including immigration rights, gender and sexual orientation equality. Calling Portland’s sidewalk obstruction ordinance (known commonly as the sit-lie ordinance) “one of the worst offenses of human rights” towards homeless individuals, Handelman hopes the commission will prevent the city from passing similarly “unfair” or “discriminatory” ordinances. “That would be ideal,” he says.

Cogen would not be specific about the range of local issues the commission may tackle, but said that any discrimination issue would be a focus of the commission. He did say that one of the biggest mistakes the commission can make would be focusing on issues not local to Portland, such as the genocide in Darfur.

“What they could do of value is formulate an opinion about something, like the City Club occasionally does, and publish that opinion,” Renaud says.

Others, however, think that whether the commission should have some sort of enforcement capability should be a part of future discussions regarding the nature of the commission.

“Maybe once this gets going, (and) if they discover they’re falling on deaf ears… maybe changes could be made,” Handelman says.

“We hope it has the authority to do substantive work,” says Brian Willoughby, communications director for ACLU of Oregon, and not, he says, “be an image of what it should be, and not have the teeth to do it.”

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