Five Anoka residents want the City Council to reconsider its controversial decision to disband the city’s Human Rights Commission — or they want to call a citywide vote on the issue.
Those five citizens are now circulating a referendum petition to do just that.
“It’s absolutely the worst time to disestablish a commission that is focused on understanding the diversity of the city,” Mike Erickson, one of the petition sponsors, said.
If by May 14 the sponsors can gather signatures from 353 registered Anoka voters (3% of registered voters as of last November), the City Council will be forced to reconsider its decision. That’s according to the process laid out in the City Charter, which functions like a constitution for the city. If the council doesn’t reverse its decision at that point, the question will go to voters.
“I’m confident that we can get the amount of signatures that we need in order to give the council another chance,” petition sponsor Eric Bobick said.
Sponsors also include Jody Anderson, who is Erickson’s wife; Sue Dergantz; and Sam Scott. Two of the sponsors’ names may sound familiar to voters, because they ran for office last November. Scott sought a seat on the City Council, and Erickson ran for the Minnesota House as a DFL candidate.
The City Council is split on the future of the Human Rights Commission.
Public outcry kept the commission alive last August when the city was poised to abolish the long-dormant body, which hadn’t met since 2012. The vote was 4-1 to keep the commission, with Council Member Elizabeth Barnett dissenting. She said at the time that she values input from diverse groups and wants the city to intentionally include their perspectives, but she doesn’t think a human rights commission is the best way to do that.
The attention on the commission renewed interest in it, and applicants sought to join. But after that, commission members and the City Council couldn’t agree on the commission’s role, with some council members viewing the commissioners’ goals as pushing a particular political agenda under the guise of a city entity. They said the commission members should form an independent nonprofit.
In March this year the council reversed its previous decision, voting 3-2 to dissolve the commission, with Mayor Phil Rice and Council Member Erik Skogquist dissenting. Council Member Jeff Weaver, who rejoined the council following the November election, and Council Member Brian Wesp voted with Barnett to disband the commission. In 2020 Wesp had said the commission would be better as a nonprofit but had voted to keep it because of the public comment.
The council’s reversal left some residents confused and feeling the council didn’t really give the commission a chance.
“It was kind of sudden, and it seemed, to some of us, a hasty move on the part of the City Council,” Scott said.
He considers the commission valuable as a city-run entity because it demonstrates a commitment to hearing the voices of those who aren’t always heard.
“Having a commission like this allows the people to have a voice, to feel that they’ve been heard … and have an avenue to get to decision-makers,” Scott said. He believes having an official channel for listening to concerns can go a long way.
“It just seems to me that we need to spend more time trying to bring everybody in our community together,” Dergantz said. “I felt that’s what the Human Rights Commission would do.”
Anderson said she feels it’s “important that we understand our minority community in our community, and this is a way to study and find out about the community and then be able to share that with the council, the mayor and the police.”
Petition sponsors believe the section of city code that governs the commission sets laudable goals.
According to the ordinance, the commission’s responsibilities include communicating with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights; creating equal opportunity and eliminating discrimination and inequalities; supporting the acceptance of cultural diversity in the city; supporting the elimination of hate, prejudice and discrimination; advising the City Council on human rights issues; and supporting the goals of the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
“I believe in the statements that are in city code,” Bobick said.
Bobick also pointed out that the commission serves only in an advisory capacity and the City Council has the right to give direction, veto ideas, appoint commissioners and remove commissioners.
“Some of the fears and things that have been expressed by some of the council members, there’s not substance to that,” he said, adding that the council could appoint an entirely new set of commissioners if it’s dissatisfied with the commission’s performance.
It’s not clear how the council will vote if the petitioners collect enough signatures to force the issue, but Council Member Elizabeth Barnett did not look favorably on the petition being circulated.
“I’m disappointed to see this petition being brought forward to a potential referendum, contrary to the will of the elected City Council,” she said at last week’s City Council meeting.
Barnett reiterated that she believes that people interested in the commission should form an independent nonprofit to pursue their goals. She pointed to Coon Rapids as an example, because the city doesn’t have a Human Rights Commission, but the nonprofit Transformative Circle raises funds and regularly hosts events aimed at bringing people together.
Barnett said even though Human Rights Commission members aren’t paid, it does cost the city money to operate the commission. She said it cost taxpayers $13,000 to run the commission from September 2020 to February 2021 after accounting for staff time, Zoom meetings, off-site secretarial services and more.
Barnett also speculated that the commissioners’ real goal was to “promote more radical progressive ideas” rather than general human decency, and she criticized what she viewed as a lack of professionalism among them.
None of the commissioners is among the sponsors of the referendum petition. Bobick applied for the commission but wasn’t appointed.
The petition sponsors plan to collect signatures in the parking lot at Third and Main Street in Anoka from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, May 1.
If the sponsors gather enough signatures and the petition meets the requirements of the City Charter, the City Council will have the opportunity to uphold or reverse its decision on the Human Rights Commission at the first council meeting in June, according to Assistant City Manager Amy Oehlers. If the council upholds its decision, the question will go to voters. In that case, the council will choose whether to have a special election or wait until the 2022 general election.
This story has been updated to reflect the correct deadline for the petition and date the council would consider it. The timeline given by city staff at the April 19 council meeting was incorrect.