El Dorado County Human Rights Commission on chopping block
The El Dorado County Board of Supervisors is considering disbanding the county’s Human Rights Commission.
What was supposed to be a conversation regarding the purpose, membership and direction of the commission became a discussion between supervisors on its fate Jan. 24.
District 4 Supervisor Lori Parlin, who has served on the commission, said the commission is struggling due to not having clear direction on how it should operate. She also noted challenges commissioners face such as rotating members appointed each year and a lack of resources provided by the county.
The commission was formed in 2018 with the purpose of promoting tolerance and respect among the county’s different races, religions and other characteristics in its residents.
“It seems like when I was on there for a couple of years I felt like the wheel was constantly being reinvented of what the commission was to do, how it was to do it (and) there was a lot of frustration,” Parlin said. “I don’t see the board at this time allocating what I see is the enormous amount of resources that are really needed to make this successful.”
Parlin recommended having a nonprofit take on the humanitarian mission and appointing a supervisor as a county liaison to the El Dorado chapter of the nonprofit Bridging Divide.
Bridging Divide is a national effort to address growing social and political disparities in communities.
“To me that seems like a good place for this effort … and it seems like (Bridging Divide) has the tools and has more flexibility than government for outreach, communication and bringing more sectors together,” Parlin said. “I feel that’s probably a better place for this effort.”
Parlin stated she could not properly articulate the accomplishments of the county’s Human Rights Commission, noting administrative staff has been frustrated with the commission, including in reworking its agendas before public notice. Parlin recalled that the commission at one time created “havoc in the community” and violated the Brown Act in an email exchange while she was on the commission, a situation Parlin, the county’s chief administrative officer and county counsel had to step in and stop.
“I really struggle to allow the commission that has no guidance and no boundaries on such important topics (to represent) us if we don’t know what they are doing and actually have a say,” Parlin commented.
Parlin further questioned the commission’s 2023 work plan and what action was actually in its jurisdiction. Citing an example, Parlin pointed out the work plan consists of a 2023 speaker series that involves the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, with whom the county has an appointed liaison with.
“That is a very delicate relationship between a sovereign nation to a county, and it is on their work plan,” Parlin said. “As far as I know, they think they are going to do this. This board didn’t say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (and) county counsel didn’t have the opportunity to say ‘By the way, we have a liaison. This probably isn’t appropriate.’”
“This kind of stuff has been going on with the commission for as long as I can remember,” Parlin added.
District 1 Supervisor John Hidahl, who has also served on the Human Rights Commission, said while he thinks there is lack of direction to the board from the commission on how it can effect change in the county regarding human rights, he was in disagreement with disbanding the commission altogether.
“I look at this process similar to a team formation process and it starts out with ‘forming’ and then you go through ‘storming,’” Hidahl said. “‘Then you go through ‘norming,’ then you go through high performing.”
“I think we have gone through the ‘storming’ phase and we are getting to the phase where we can start to ‘norm’ and we can look forward to expectations of seeing more activities that will help people become more informed and educated relative to what human rights are all about,” he continued.
Hidahl noted Bridging Divides focuses more on social and political disparities due to COVID-19 mandates, among other divisions in communities and he would want to talk with the nonprofit’s leadership to determine its scope of educating the public on human rights.
District 5 Supervisor Brooke Laine said a county commission regarding human rights would be beneficial and demonstrate the Board of Supervisor’s desire to have a space where human rights discussions can occur. She added that she would consider being a member of the commission.
District 3 Supervisor Wendy Thomas pointed out the commission may not be allowed to explore topics not under the Board of Supervisor’s jurisdiction, creating “inherent conflict.” She suggested such topics would best be pursued by a nonprofit.
“In no way are any of us saying that we don’t support the objectives of supporting mutual respect and tolerance and fostering peaceful relationships in our community,” she said. “We are tasked with understanding where is the best place for those kinds of activities. By having it as a county committee those efforts are in a silo.”
Human Rights Commission Chair Susan Simpkin in a letter to the board wrote that commission members had worked to make human rights topics relevant to the county and questioned what factors deemed the commission a failure.
“How can our commission help the board in its mission to promote democracy? What information can our commission add to the discussion that will assist in developing and carrying out policy that directly helps the lives of county citizens?” Simpkin asks. “It is my request that the board continue to support this young commission. Let us fix what we can, understand what we value in common and continue to move forward, empowered with the vision that each person in El Dorado County feels safe enough to stay.”
During public comment El Dorado County Planning Commissioner Andy Nevis compared the commission to more of an activist group, not fitting for a county organization.
“I think everyone is going to be better served if this is under a nonprofit structure,” Nevis stated. “The commission is going to have more freedom to do what they wish to do, to make the impact they want to have and the county is not going to have to worry about having liability if something goes sideways or they step into a controversial issue that your board doesn’t want to step into.”
Cameron Park resident Dawn Wolfson praised the Human Rights Commission’s homeless forum held at the El Dorado County Office of Education in 2022 and commented that the commission could be more of an educational organization, with guidelines if they step out of line.
“As an educational outreach organization, I think they are excellent,” Wolfson told the board. “If you are speaking to activism, then maybe we need to have a separate nonprofit, but I don’t see any reason to do away with this particular commission. I’d rather see you fine-tune it and get it back in line with its original goals.”
El Dorado Hills resident Kelley Nalewaja criticized how the commission handled a hearing that followed a March 2022 racial incident at an Oak Ridge High School girls soccer championship game, when derogatory animal noises were aimed toward Hispanic and Black players from the visiting school. She said the commission demanded an explanation, calling it a “gas-lighting incident.”
She also argued the commission is “unapproachable” if community members have differing opinions from its stance.
Parlin, Thomas and Supervisor George Turnboo voted “yes” to have staff bring an item forth to disband the Human Rights Commission 60 days after Jan. 24. Hidahl and Laine cast “no” votes.
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