El Dorado County supervisors vote 3-2 to dissolve Human Rights Commission

Eric Jaramishian / Mountain Democrat

Despite overwhelming opposition from the public Tuesday morning, El Dorado County took another step toward disbanding its Human Rights Commission. 

In a divisive vote, the Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to make an amendment to an ordinance that established the commission to state that it has been terminated.

Some board members previously expressed concerns regarding the commission, including allocation of proper resources and unclear direction and they said they felt the group had gotten too “political” in its practices.

Robin Valicenti, who serves on the commission, told supervisors the commission was not political and provided a forum for marginalized people to be heard, including homeless individuals and victims of domestic violence and human trafficking. 

“We need to allow for a space for our marginalized communities like LGBT and domestic violence (survivors) to speak to the county, for it to witness,” Valicenti said.

Many who wrote in to the county and spoke during public comment during the board’s March 14 meeting felt a commission dealing with human rights was necessary and urged reconsideration of dissolving the group. 

“Human rights does not matter if you are Democrat, Republican, rich, poor or what culture you are from,” said Sheryl Trainor, a pediatric occupational therapist. “I think it is great to have many ideas. I do believe that a group of people can work together to have ideas and I think the solution, rather than disbanding a group of people, is to work with them.”

Trainor added she thought the Human Rights Commission would show the county values human rights for all communities and people.

Placerville resident Mora Madison shared testimony of her neighbors and herself being “leaf-letted” with antisemitic and Holocaust-denying literature two days before the 2022 midterm elections. She said she was also contacted by people claiming to have experienced racist acts against them, who Madison directed to the Human Rights Commission only to find it to be on the chopping block.

“I was disturbed that people would no longer have this important avenue of recourse to address such critical issues.” Madison said. “Without a Human Rights Commission in place, where can these folks go to get help and assistance they need? Sure, they can go down the hill 45 miles to the Sacramento National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or the ACLU, but isn’t it more responsible, efficient and healthy to clean up our own house in our own county?” 

The Board of Supervisors established the Human Rights Commission in 2018 as a county resource to bring awareness and promote human rights, covering a wide range of topics such as mental illness, homelessness, racial minority groups, religious freedom and more. 

Past Human Rights Commission action includes a human rights forum held in 2019 featuring human rights experts, hosting a homelessness awareness forum in 2022 and reporting to the Board of Supervisors on data it has collected on issues regarding human rights. 

“We wanted to be a presence and have people know that we listen and have eyes on this aspect on county happenings,” said Susan Simpkin, Human Rights Commission chair. “We wanted to hear what these issues are so when we talk to the board we can let them know these are things going on in the county so they can make policies and decisions dedicated to inclusion and having people feel safe here.” 

The county has had its share of recent controversies regarding human rights. 

Last year at an Oak Ridge High School girls soccer championship game against Fresno-area Buchanan High, a Trojan student made animal noises while Hispanic and Black players from the visiting team took penalty kicks. Following the incident the Human Rights Commission explored how county schools were addressing bullying and discrimination.

The commission held a meeting featuring guest speakers El Dorado County Superintendent of Schools Ed Manansala, El Dorado County Assistant Superintendent of Schools Chris Moore and Oak Ridge Principal Aaron Palm, an action some criticized as being more of an “interrogation.” 

“That was not my experience,” Simpkin said. “Our intention was to ask questions beyond things we saw on the news and understand from people in these positions to know and inform the community on what they are doing to address these issues and to even partner with them.” 

Additionally, the El Dorado Union High School District is facing a civil rights lawsuit that alleges a student experienced harassment and bullying due to her race and sexual orientation.

“Human rights are not going away,” Simpkin said. “There are issues on that topic in this county.” 

District 1 Supervisor John Hidahl said he believes the commission serves an important purpose and urged the board to extend the conversation of disbanding the commission. 

“If we were inclined to restructure or reformat it, I think we can make sure the expectations of the board are met but at this point in time I would hope we could find a way to continue in this area,” Hidahl said. “I think it is absolutely necessary in our communities. There has been a long history of things that we need to be able to understand why people feel the way they do and hopefully over time be able to influence and change that.” 

District 2 Supervisor George Turnboo referenced Shasta County’s Health and Human Services Agency civil rights coordinator and its procedures of reporting alleged discrimination as an alternative method of supporting human rights in the county.

“I think this particular human rights commission has gotten way too political,” Turnboo said. “I think there is a problem there … it should have been addressed a long time ago and it wasn’t. I think the best way to solve this is to look at different alternatives and I think Shasta has done the right thing with the civil rights coordinator.” 

Simpkin told the Mountain Democrat she was unaware of issues some supervisors brought up, such as alleging a lack of communication between the board and commission, being too “political” and making Brown Act violations. 

“I wish they named those concerns to us because we could have convened and corrected our course of action,” Simpkin added, noting the commission only intended to send messages supporting human rights to all residents of the county and not take sides. 

Board Chair and District 3 Supervisor Wendy Thomas said the responsibility to promote human rights dialogue and improve understanding falls solely on the board.

“Life is complex and from time to time community tensions flare up and people behave badly but it is the Board of Supervisors’ responsibility to embody an adopted civility resolution and engage as appropriate to promote mutual respect, tolerance and goodwill among ourselves within our county organization and within the community,” Thomas told fellow supervisors. “I’m grateful for the work the Human Rights commission has done and I thank them for their work but the responsibility for this work lies with us.” 

District 5 Supervisor Brooke Laine offered to serve on the Human Rights Commission and said disbanding the commission altogether would be unwise. 

“Its an overarching concern that when we don’t like an advisory committee’s or commission’s outcome … we try to terminate their existence and I think that is not a good position for the board to be seen publicly as being destructive instead of trying to address and fix the problem,” Laine commented. 

District 4 Supervisor Lori Parlin countered, saying she has worked to reorganize the committee but the committee as it stands does not benefit the county due to lack of understanding of its role. 

Parlin, Thomas and Turnboo voted in support of dissolving the Human Rights Commission while Hidahl and Laine cast “no” votes. The amendment went into first reading this week and will go into a second reading March 21 for final passage. 

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