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Aldermen try to redefine human relations group

Evanston aldermen this week agreed that they aren’t happy with the way the city’s Human Relations Commisssion is functioning, but had more trouble defining exactly what it should be doing.

The commission was formed in the 1970s, and at various times has played roles in hearing claims of police abuse and in challenging alleged discriminatory practices by real estate firms.

Evanston aldermen this week agreed that they aren’t happy with the way the city’s Human Relations Commisssion is functioning, but had more trouble defining exactly what it should be doing.

The commission was formed in the 1970s, and at various times has played roles in hearing claims of police abuse and in challenging alleged discriminatory practices by real estate firms.

But the city now has separate groups to review police cases and, as Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, noted, agencies at the county, state and federal level have taken on issues of housing and employment discrimination.

"They’re equipped with investigators, they have administrative judges to hear these cases and have the authority to impose sanctions," Jean-Baptiste said, while the city’s ability to fund such activities has been dramatically reduced by its budget crisis.

He noted that commission members had recently proposed that the group take on an "alternative dispute resolution" or mediation role in community issues, but said "I don’t think we have enough of the resources to make that happen effectively."

Jean-Baptiste suggested the group could work on engaging the community in activities, workshops and discussions about diversity and how residents from different backgrounds can get to know each other better and appreciate their differences.

He suggested that redefinition would help attract a different kind of candidate to volunteer to serve on the commission.

Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, said he’d like to see the group’s role expanded beyond issues of discrimination. "We might have neighbors who have a challenging time dealing with each other, that creates a rift in the community, even though there’s no indication of discrimination."

He said that while it might not be possible for the commission to take on a mediation role immediately, he’d like to see that added down the road.

But Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, said staff in the city’s legal department has been handling the neighborhood mediation role for the past several years.

And Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, suggested the time has come to abolish the commission, at least in its present form. "For many years now they haven’t functioned under the rules they’re supposed to be playing by. I think we can’t amend this. We need to start over, create something new."

Rainey said the group’s only efforts to take on a new role recently involved "piggybacking" on projects like the comnunity picnic that other groups were already handling.

Joan Raisner, a member of the commission and its former co-chair told aldermen she had hoped their tone "would be a little more positive than what she was hearing from some around the table."

The review of the Human Relations Commission is part of a larger project by City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz to review the work of the city’s three-dozen volunteer panels in an effort to streamline city government and cut costs.

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