Human Relations Youth Resources Commission: coping with changes

A meeting of the Human Relations Youth Resources (HRYR) Commission on Wednesday, April 23, started at 7:00 pm in the Denny Room at the Health Center. The main topic was a public hearing about Article 10 on the warrant for the annual town meeting in May. That proposes to replace the HRYR Commission with a new town board. Attendance was slim. Other than town officials, there were three members of the public. Although this was supposed to be a public hearing, members of the public were never invited to speak.

Article 10 is proposed by a selectmen-appointed “diversity committee.” Nancy Daly, a member of the Board of Selectmen who chaired that committee, attended the Wednesday meeting and offered several comments. Rita McNally, a former HRYR commissioner and a member of the selectmen-appointed committee, was also there and spoke. Known in full as the Committee on Diversity, Equal Employment Opportunities and Affirmative Action, it met a dozen times between December, 2012, and January of this year.

What HRYR commissioners really did at the “public hearing” was line-by-line review of the selectmen-appointed committee’s proposal in Article 10. An unsigned, draft “Motion to be offered,” amending that article, had been circulated among commissioners. Paper copies were available to the public. No one said who wrote the “Motion” document, but it was explained and defended by Mariela Ames, who chairs the HRYR Commission.

Brookline’s Human Relations Commission emerged amid complaints in the late 1960s that some police officers had harassed people of color. After quite a stir, the commission was created by the 1970 annual town meeting and began operations that August. Except for being merged with the former Youth Resources Council in 1974, its organization and duties remained the same for 43 years–until last year.

A stimulus for reviewing the HRYR Commission looks to have been retirement last year of Steven Bressler, HRYR director since 1974. During its early years, HRYR became an active town department, with a staff that grew to around ten. After Proposition 2-1/2, in 1982, there were many cutbacks in town services. For example, most sidewalk snow-plowing ended. HRYR staff shrank until only Mr. Bressler remained.

Originally Article XXVIII in Brookline’s bylaws, the Human Relations bylaw later became Section 3.14 of the current bylaws. Under it, until last year the Human Relations Youth Resources Commission was charged to:
  • develop…opportunities…for those who are discriminated against and restricted
  • adopt…affirmative action guidelines [for] employment practices…of the town
  • adopt…affirmative action guidelines [for] employment practices of town contractors
  • administer…the affirmative action program relating to contracts
  • secure the investigation of…complaints charging discrimination

Taking the first duty literally, in 2012 HRYR commissioners began to review hirings and promotions by town agencies: departments run by the Board of Selectmen and Town Administrator Mel Kleckner and also the Public Schools, Housing Authority and Public Library–which have elected boards. It didn’t take long to discover that there were no minority department heads among the 26 departments under the selectmen and town administrator, also that there had been–at most–only one during the previous 40 years.

As has happened in other Massachusetts communities with a board similar to HRYR, the commission began to seem like an “itch” to some of the people who have participated in town government for years. There were complaints it was going beyond its “mission.” However, a main purpose of such a board is to air a community’s dirty laundry. When it is doing its job, the HRYR Commission is almost sure to become an “itch.”

In 1974, the Board of Selectmen proposed to merge Human Relations with the former Youth Resources and also to strip away from the merged commission responsibilities to adopt and enforce town policy–instead vesting many responsibilities in a town employee to be called the “director of human relations youth resources,” reporting to selectmen rather than to the commission. Town meeting agreed to the merger but left human relations responsibilities of the HRYR Commission as originally set in 1970.

This year, a selectmen-appointed committee proposes more changes, now creating a new “Diversity, Inclusion and Community Relations (DICR) Commission.” As in 1974, the proposal would strip away from a commission of town citizens responsibilities to adopt and enforce town policy, instead vesting many responsibilities in a town employee–this time to be called a “chief diversity officer.” That employee would not report to a new DICR commission or to selectmen but instead to Town Administrator Mel Kleckner.

The town employee would be charged with “preparation and submission to the Board of Selectmen of a recommended diversity and inclusion policy.” The town employee would also “serve [as] ombudsperson to provide…dispute resolution services.” A DICR “department,” in place of the former HRYR department, might have only one staff person, or it might have no staff at all. However, DICR would have a “mission.”

Hardly a surprise: the first target at the HRYR Commission’s review on Wednesday was a “mission” statement proposed for DICR. The original Human Relations bylaw had no such “mission” statement. The current bylaw, as revised last year, has none either. Bylaws for other agencies don’t have “mission” statements. Instead, bylaws just describe duties and powers of boards, commissions, committees and departments. There have been florid claims of “empowering” DICR through a “mission,” but the practical effect is to constrain it.

Language in the selectmen-appointed committee’s article is prolix. Brian Myles challenged other HRYR commissioners to try to articulate the proposed “mission”–apparently meaning to state it in plain words. No one was able to do that very well. It looks something like the handiwork of Martin Rosenthal, a member of the selectmen-appointed committee. Mr. Rosenthal, who was on the Board of Selectmen in the 1980s, has a similar habit of speech. He is now a Precinct 9 town meeting member and co-chair of Brookline PAX.

The “Motion” document considered at the HRYR meeting would have deleted the “mission” statement. However, after a long discussion, HRYR commissioners voted unanimously that the “mission” should be reduced to one sentence plus one of the four paragraphs. They labored over the size of a DICR commission, voting that it should be 15, like the current HRYR Commission–rather than 11 to 15 as the selectmen-appointed committee proposes. HRYR commissioners would allow one of the 15 to be a parent of a METCO student rather than a town resident.

The HRYR Commission is responsible for enforcing Brookline’s fair housing law, Section 5.5 in the bylaws. Article 10, as proposed by the selectmen-appointed committee, would abolish the HRYR Commission but put nothing in its place to enforce the fair housing law. HRYR commissioners voted that the proposed DICR commission should take responsibility for the fair housing law.

The rest of the HRYR “public hearing” was discussions among commissioners over proposed duties of a new DICR commission, including review of employment practices of town agencies. If the new commission has any staff, its director is expected also to serve as the town’s “chief diversity officer”–typically among the roles in a human resources office. Like most large businesses, Brookline now has such an office, but it did not have one in the 1970s. Two commissioners were opposed in a vote on duties of a chief diversity officer.

On Wednesday, HRYR commissioners seemed unsure how to conduct a public hearing and how to organize and promote a warrant article, yet some commissioners wanted to be involved with employment practices of town agencies–more complicated tasks. They might also need to learn procedures to subpoena witnesses, take sworn testimony, demand, review and safeguard confidential documents and conduct executive sessions.

Nancy Daly, the member of the Board of Selectmen attending, raised a point about the last of those procedures. She also reminded HRYR commissioners that Brookline will have slim financial resources to provide staff, noting that many other boards and committees do their own work–preparing minutes and writing reports. The HRYR Commission could not finish its review on Wednesday and will meet Monday, April 28, at 6:30 pm, trying to wrap up. It might even hold a public hearing.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, April 24, 2014

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