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Bring back the HRC

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City Council is considering the revival of the Human Relations Commission, which served the city from 1968 to 1995. If it's approved, Colorado Springs would join most other large U.S. cities with city-sponsored human relations commissions. Sometimes called "human rights commissions" or "community relations commissions," these citizen groups serve multiple purposes, usually divided into three main functions.

If we had an HRC, this is what it would do:

Mediation and reconciliation. The HRC would provide trained mediators for individuals and groups in conflict. Mediation, a formal process for dispute resolution with the consent of those concerned, is strictly confidential and voluntary. It can help to prevent expensive litigation, often a no-win situation.

The commission would be a resource to help courts lighten their load, training volunteer mediators and assigning them as needed to resolve cases ranging from barking dogs and noisy neighbors, to landlord/tenant conflict and disputes concerning employment, housing and consumer issues.

Mediation also can resolve discrimination complaints based on race, ethnicity, class, gender, age, and sexual orientation. Colorado Springs is a diverse and welcoming community, but discrimination and unequal treatment are still facts of life for many residents. The HRC would work to lessen discrimination through mediation and education. In cases where the HRC could not achieve reconciliation through mediation, complaints would be referred to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which enforces state laws outlawing discrimination.

• Informed advocacy. The HRC can be the conscience of the community, paying attention to voices not heard. And it can communicate groups' legitimate needs to officials and administrators.

"Informed advocacy," defined as making well-balanced recommendations, can be immensely valuable to policy-makers dealing with the poor and disadvantaged. Government can benefit from recommendations put forward by citizen-volunteers, many with professional expertise in human services and community development. Informed advocacy, balancing diverse needs and perspectives, can help in long-term resolution of systemic and chronic community problems, such as homelessness, and help create a more coherent community.

Marginalized groups often perceive themselves to be shortchanged by the distribution of money, resources and services. Using a network of community leaders, the HRC can help educate the community about the process of allocating scarce resources among neighborhoods and constituencies, and how to influence outcomes. By involving people long before elected officials are asked to decide, the HRC can help local government obtain the cooperation of citizens.

• Diversity education. In collaboration with the Colorado Springs Diversity Forum, the HRC would conduct activities to enhance positive awareness of the many distinct cultures and groups here. The HRC would promote respect and fair treatment for all groups. Special attention would be given to the realities of social class differences, a major element of what we call "diversity."

In terms of promoting respect for diversity, the HRC would be good for business. Businesses prefer cities where tolerance is the norm and official groups like the HRC are in place to promote the value of diversity.

The HRC would bring residents closer to our local elected officials. Their time is better spent on formulating policy, rather than on mediating individual disputes and doing community education, which the HRC can do for them.

Structurally, the Human Relations Commission would be budget-neutral, functioning only with active participation of volunteers. It would be a nine-member panel appointed by City Council, accountable to Council for its recommendations and decisions. The commission would meet monthly in different areas of the city in order to be accessible to all residents. The HRC would not have enforcement powers. It would accomplish its goals mainly through education, conciliation and awareness-building.

City Council will hear the proposed ordinance creating a Human Relations Commission at its 1 p.m. meeting on Tuesday, June 8.

Joe Barrera chairs the Human Relations Commission Ordinance Task Force. Tom Strand, president of the School District 11 board, is an entrepreneurial business consultant serving on the task force.

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