The Crow Wing County human rights commission was abolished Tuesday in a 4-1 board vote.
Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom was the lone vote in favor of keeping the human rights ordinance that created the commission in 1998.
More recently, the Human Rights Commission has been the subject of contention and friction among its members.
Tuesday’s public hearing brought about 40 people to the board room. Many voiced their opinions both for and against the commission to commissioners during a hearing that lasted nearly two hours.
“To be honest,” said Commissioner Phil Trusty, “I was disappointed.”
Trusty said he wanted to see if there was support for the commission and hear how it interacted with the community.
Those in favor of keeping the commission said it added weight to the goal of promoting human rights in the community and served an educational role. Those against said the commission was redundant and served little to no purpose.
In recent days, the issue of whether to have a Human Rights Commission or not took on a partisan tone. That continued Tuesday, although Crow Wing County Board Chairman Paul Thiede said while the subject has been part of heated conversation he would not allow inflammatory language before the board.
Father David Gallus, League of Minnesota Human Rights Commission district director, said differences are not just about race and color but about all kinds of differences. Gallus said the role of the Human Rights Commission is to promote harmony and respect for the rights of all. If the commission failed it was not the fault of human rights but perhaps the members needed to be changed, Gallus said.
“To me it’s not a political issue. As a clergyman — for me — it’s a moral issue,” Gallus said.
Terry Sluss, who was on the county board when the human rights ordinance was adopted, said he realized there were contentious situations and personality issues but he urged the board to allow additional time for others to step forward.
Roger Lynn, retired United Methodist minister from Crosslake and executive director of Crow Wing County Youth Wellness Initiative, strongly urged the board to keep the commission, noting its role in education. Lynn said a concern is having a community that welcomes and supports youths not just for the future but for the present and human rights is an issue close to many youths active in the community.
Guy Green, Brainerd, said what the board was hearing in public testimony was symptomatic of many problems in American Society today.
“Crow Wing County is not brimming with racial tension,” Green said.
Nystrom said Willie Navy, who was the victim of a racially motivated beating in Brainerd, may not agree.
“We may not be brimming with racial tension, but there is racial tension,” Nystrom said.
Green said the Human Rights Commission had no accountability, no attendance and had an abundance of representation from the DFL Party and accusations of racism at the drop of a hat.
“The population of this county and this country are tired of that,” Green said.
Green said reshuffling the chairs was not a solution as the state Department of Human Rights, police and population and schools are immersed and bathed in diversity and multiculturalism on a continuous basis.
Several residents said the commission was set up to receive a percentage of a fine if a business was fined by the state, which they strongly disagreed with. William Durham, who regularly attended Human Rights Commission meetings, said state records regarding that are itemized and show no payment to the commission. Durham also questioned all the talk about accountability issues, saying grant requirements were met and satisfied and expenses noted with the auditor’s office without money lost or unaccounted for.
Rep. John Ward, DFL-Brainerd, said it was ironic and sad to be debating whether to have the human rights ordinance on the same day the Minnesota Supreme Court justices were arriving in Brainerd.
“I’m also saddened this issue has become a partisan issue,” Ward said. “... It’s not a Democrat or Republican issue. It’s an issue that deals with respect, dignity, diversity, tolerance of all of our people.”
Ward said human rights are not one party’s platform but is part of an American issue. Ward said he found it was concerning that five people would make a determination he saw as a slam-dunk decision because he lived discrimination and bullying.
“When I was younger before the Equal Opportunity Act, I was discriminated against and bullied both. I lost jobs because of my arm,” Ward said. “I remember that only too well. Those issues are very real and important to many people in this county.”
Thiede took issue with Ward’s comments about five people making the decision as five people made the decision to create the Human Rights Commission.
Maggie Tiede, 16, Remer, a Central Lakes College student and member of the executive board of the diversity leadership council, spoke in favor of keeping the commission.
“I am a member of many diverse communities here and I would really hate to see Crow Wing County be a county that doesn’t put human rights first,” Tiede said, adding she couldn’t see a community that doesn’t put human rights first as one where she’d like to spend her adulthood.
Doug Kern, who said his son was a victim of bullying, said when human rights are violated they should be prosecuted but he was bothered by a monetary reward system for finding violators.
“That is totally wrong,” Kern said, adding he agreed with Green’s comments.
An Unorganized Territory resident said the commission was a conflict of personalities, inactive and ineffective and should be eliminated. He said if someday in the future it could be effective he would be in favor of it, but not now.
Yvonne Leiser, one of the original signers on a petition for the human rights commission in 1998, read from a list of early supporters. Leiser said although the commission has stumbled she urged the county board to give it a chance to be productive.
Jeff Czeczok said the board and other community leaders were criticized for not attending a human rights gathering after the Navy beating but they weren’t there because they didn’t need to be educated on human rights. The Constitution is taught in high school, he said.
“Nobody is asking or questioning the need for human rights,” Czeczok said. “Everybody knows what human rights are. If you don’t understand it, can you be educated? I don’t think so.”
Thiede at first took exception to Czeczok’s remarks, misunderstanding him to say board members should have attended. Thiede said it wasn’t necessary for the board to attend every meeting or read every Vox Pop published in the Dispatch to be informed and he wasn’t going to let Czeczok take swipes at the board.
“I’m not doing that,” Czeczok said, adding he thanked the board for not going.
County resident Mike Murphy said the commission wasn’t needed and has already shown it doesn’t work.
“It doesn’t mean you guys don’t care about human rights,” Murphy said. “We’re wasting too much time here on it. Let’s get rid of it.”
Paul Mans, county resident with a diverse family, said in 1990 a group formed a Habitat for Humanity chapter here, which went through several changes but kept going and now is building its 75th home. Mans urged the board to give the commission a chance to improve.
Human Rights Commission Chairman Josh Heintzeman and Secretary Keri Heintzeman previously told the board they thought the commission, which has struggled to get quorums for meetings, could be disbanded and didn’t have a long list of successes.
Commissioner Doug Houge said he struggled to see any accomplishments by the board. Nystrom pointed to the annual human rights award, which highlights leaders in human rights in the community and said she had emails from about 13 people willing to serve.
Commissioner Rosemary Franzen said there are only two counties in the state with a commission and just 5 percent of cities have such commissions.
“I don’t think there is any debate we support human rights,” Franzen said, adding the county opposed discrimination and welcomes diversity. “I do believe we are a duplication of service.”
The Heintzemans said the discussion wasn’t covering facts and issues facing the commission.
“The facts are this organization has leaned heavily toward one side politically in terms of its influence and there is a part of us that feels that is being ignored,” Josh Heintzeman said.
The Heintzemans told the commissioners they walked out of the last county board meeting on Sept. 13 when the board voted to set Tuesday’s public hearing and fellow Human Rights Commission member Taylor Stevenson made a threatening comment in the hall.
Josh Heintzeman later called Stevenson and recorded their conversation. Tuesday, the Heintzemans read from a transcript of that conversation where Stevenson apologized to them for any threatening comments. Keri Heintzeman said Stevenson told the Dispatch he didn’t remember making those comments but she didn’t think he would forget and then provide a lengthy apology to them over the phone.
Nystrom asked if Stevenson was aware they were recording him to which Josh Heintzeman said it’s legal to record someone without their knowledge. The Heintzemans reported Stevenson said he could have people phone in death threats to those opposed to the group. The Heintzemans said that comment was threatening to the commissioners. The Brainerd Police Department received a report about the issue last Thursday.
The Heintzemans said that fact that nobody was talking about it was shocking to them. Keri Heintzeman said they care about human rights and that Stevenson’s alleged threat is a violation of human rights.
Josh Heintzeman said he felt their credibility was being challenged by a story in the Dispatch in Tuesday’s edition in which they felt portrayed them as liars because their testimony was damaging to a future of a human rights commission. The Heintzemans said they were doing the best they could to give an accurate representation of their experience on the commission.
“Josh and I are not liars on this,” Keri Heintzeman said. “We are just concerned citizens trying to do the right thing.”
Nystrom said with Stevenson, a former DFL candidate for office, and the Heintzemans active Republicans, it didn’t sound like the commissioner involved partisanship to her. Keri Heintzeman said she was referring to the past and noted an incident in 2005 when the commission took issue with comments Paul Koering made when he scared away would-be robbers from his Brainerd liquor store when he said crime is something that comes with growth.
Josh Heintzeman said the issue with Stevenson only cemented in their minds the commission is a partisan organization.
“And it doesn’t make any sense why it should continue forward in terms of its accomplishments and its abilities to truly resolve any of the issues that might come to this county,” Josh Heintzeman said.
Thiede cautioned against further discussion based on partisanship that would draw the board into that debate.
“I, for one, will resist to my death that this becomes a partisan issue at this table,” Thiede said. “I think partisan politics are part of our reality today but being drawn in because there is a partisan squabble going on out in the community is unnecessary in my mind.”
After Tuesday’s meeting, Durham, who was present in the hall on Sept. 13, said he did not remember the type of statement the Heintzemans did nor the tone in what he thought was a civil discussion.
Contacted later Tuesday, Stevenson said when Josh Heintzeman called him he didn’t remember making the comment or not but understood Heintzeman was bothered by it and apologized saying it was a stupid, flippant comment that didn’t have any more meaning and was done in the same seriousness as a comment about the Vikings offensive line on Sundays.
Stevenson said he never should have said anything like it but was in a conversation with people he considered friends. Weeks later it became a police investigation and front page discussion.
“I have to apologize whether I said it or not for this becoming a distraction in what is an important debate,” he said regarding the future of the human rights commission.
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5852.