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At its May 3 meeting, the Rules Committee, composed of all nine aldermen and the mayor, continued its review of the City’s boards and commissions, basing its comments on recommendations from a study by the League of Women Voters of Evanston.
Most of that meeting was devoted to a discussion of the Human Relations Commission, whether it still serves a purpose or has outlived its prime.
The purview of the Commission, established in the 1970s, is to “foster, encourage and stimulate the improvement of human relations among and between citizens of all races, colors, creeds, national origins, sexes, ages, familial status, marital status, religions, physical/mental disabilities, sexual orientation, and economic and educational levels.” At that time black/white relations were at the fore. After that, landlord-tenant, youth and other ethnic issues came under its umbrella.
Today, the Commission’s voice is quieter. In fact, according to the 2008-2009 HRC Annual Report, the Commission carried three vacant seats for most of its past fiscal year. At the Rules Committee meeting, Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said there were few applicants to the commission, while former commission co-chair Joan Raisner said not all aldermen had lived up to their obligation to submit two names to the mayor for consideration.
Ms. Raisner said she believed the HRC is still very much needed in the community, saying rhetorically, “Is anyone going to argue that discrimination no longer exists?”
Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, responded that, while the Commission served a distinct purpose when it was originally established, it was not currently operating as the highly structured organization it once was. She suggested that the Commission, as it currently stands, should be abolished because she felt the role it plays is redundant across other City functions. “If we need a group of people to promote civility, we have a variety of them. Every alderman is trying to do just that in every meeting,” Ald. Rainey said.
Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, suggested that perhaps the Commission should not be eliminated, but rather restructured into a “think tank” that would be tasked with recommending policies or ideas. She also said that perhaps a name change would help attract a younger generation of commissioners that would help foster diversity and renew interest in the HRC.
Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said that if the goal was to encourage discussion, perhaps the Commission could also work on getting more young people and people of varying backgrounds to apply for boards and commissions. “This will help increase diversity.”
Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, said he agreed that there is still a need to troubleshoot relations, housing and racial discrimination. However, he suggested that the “philosophical thrust” of the Commission needed to be shifted, saying there are alternative government avenues to address these issues, such as the Illinois Department of Human Rights. “They are equipped with investigators, administrative judges, and they have the authority to impose sanctions.” Instead, he said, the Commission could “not focus on resolving problems, but to engage in proactive work to engender closeness from knowledge and interaction.”
The idea of needing to create dialogue between different demographics carried on into the Human Services Committee (HSC) meeting, when aldermen referred a discussion of public nudity to the Human Relations Commission. The discussion on the regulation of public nudity was sparked at the April 5 during a review of citizen complaints against police officers. (See the April 14 issue of the RoundTable or evanstonroundtable.com).
While Evanston Ordinance 9-5-11 bans public nudity, it does not define the term, and so the Human Services Committee undertook the task of clarification. Corporation Counsel Grant Farrar said he researched various definitions, including that of neighboring Morton Grove, and that of the Illinois Criminal Code.
Ald. Jean-Baptiste said he felt that the issue is not to criminalize the dress code of the younger demographic, but to broaden the discussion on how to shape their values. He suggested that perhaps the Human Relations Commission could help impart a moral code of behavior by increasing communication and sharing consequences.
“Young people need to understand the impact of their behavior. If they wear their pants to their knees with a belt around it…perhaps there might be some physical repercussions,” Ald. Jean-Baptiste said, implying that such fashion may impact the wearer’s walking stride, which could then lead to age-related physical issues. (See adjacent “Council Bytes.”)
Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, cautioned, “We can’t legislate how to dress, but we should have that discussion.”
A draft of a revised ordinance, which would include a definition of nudity based on the current Morton Grove ordinance, is expected to be presented at the June meeting of the Human Services Committee.