The long-dormant Anoka Human Rights Commission will survive after members of the public rallied to its defense.
In a reversal of the Anoka City Council’s previous direction, council members voted 4-1 Aug. 17 to retain the commission instead of dissolve it. Council Member Elizabeth Barnett dissented, saying it makes more sense to intentionally engage people of diverse backgrounds through other existing boards and commissions.
The Anoka Human Rights Commission was reestablished in 2003 with 15 members, but interest seemed to wane, according to the city, and in 2007 the commission was reduced to five members. It continued to have difficulty gathering a quorum and rarely had agenda items to discuss, according to a city staff memo, and in 2009 the city code was changed so the commission would meet only on an as-needed basis.
When the council discussed the topic at a July 27 work session, three of the five council members supported disbanding the commission, which hasn’t met since 2012. At that work session the council also directed staff to come up with ways the city could celebrate diversity, welcome all participation and ensure Anoka is a welcoming community.
But news of the plan to dissolve the commission sparked concern in the community, including from some current commissioners who said they were disappointed in the timing of the action and would have liked the commission to meet but weren’t sure what would trigger a meeting. Commissioners were also disappointed that they weren’t involved in the discussion about dissolution.
Numerous speakers addressed the council Aug. 17 asking it to keep the commission intact, and several said they had been discouraged by city staff from joining the commission because they were told it didn’t do much. Several speakers also criticized the timing of the move and what they viewed as a lack of leadership from the city.
“I just feel like in recent time and recent events, the whole world is watching and this is not the time to start disbanding groups like this,” Virginia Louden said. “This is the time where we need to dig deeper and find out how we can make it better and grow and revive the commission.”
Lindsey Belanger told the council that Anoka has long had a reputation of being a white, good-old-boys town where people of color don’t always feel welcome.
“Talking to people that live here that are people of color, that’s what they say they’ve felt,” she said.
Margaret Anderson, who spearheaded the effort to save the commission, submitted a petition signed by around 400 people asking the city not to disband the group. In a voicemail to the council Anderson laid out research she had done that found around 40 other human rights commissions exist in the state. She pointed out there is even a League of Minnesota Human Rights Commissions that is willing to be a resource for Anoka.
Anderson said the city’s concerns about the commission becoming a liability if it gets involved in alleged human rights violations are easily addressed and that other commissions in the state refer allegations to the state for proper investigation.
Council Member Mark Freeburg, who had originally supported dissolving the commission, moved to retain the commission because of the outpouring of community support. He still questioned the need for the commission and doubted racism is a problem in Anoka, but he said the City Council listens to its constituents.
“I have no problem with a Human Rights Commission being resurrected,” Freeburg said. “I don’t care. It wouldn’t hurt anybody or anything if it was. It just seemed like at the point where the people ... weren’t interested in having a meeting. But if they want to, I’m fine with it.”
Barnett, the lone vote of dissent, said 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. She feared it would end up being another homogeneous group who would simply consult with other advisory boards under the guise of a diversity commission. She said it would be better for other boards and commissions to seek diverse members and input.
“I believe that by challenging these boards and commissions in a meaningful and impactful way, that instead of having a group come in and consult on what they feel like these boards and commissions could do to further diversify, I feel like these boards and commissions have the background and the knowledge to take that next step,” Barnett said.
The Economic Development Commission, for example, could reach out to minority-owned businesses in the city and ask what they need and how the city can partner with them or pave the way for other minority-owned businesses, Barnett said.
She also suggested that if community members feel passionately that the community needs a separate body focused on diversity, they could create a private entity that would partner with the city, like the Anoka Community Anti-Crime Commission, which has a City Council liaison and works closely with the Police Department. That type of organization could be effective and not be bound by the same constraints as a city commission, she suggested.
Although he ultimately supported continuing the Human Rights Commission, Council Member Brian Wesp liked the idea of a private entity that partnered with the city.
“You want to have a human rights commission, then we should have one,” Wesp told the members of the public in the council chambers. “Should you have it privately? You have a lot more options to do what you want to do. Do you have enough ambition and courage to start that privately? You think … it’s the place of ‘Anoka government’ to manage that? Then it will be managed by the City Council, whomever that council is at any given time.”
Council Member Erik Skogquist, however, believed it is important for the commission to be part of the city’s infrastructure.
“I’ve been on the outside of City Council talking to you ... 15, 20 years, and I was not a City Council member,” he said. “And I know firsthand how it’s great and it’s wonderful to come and talk and listen, and then the decision gets made and you really have no say in that.”
Although the city’s other boards and commissions are primarily advisory in nature, they “have a seat at the table,” according to Skogquist.
“There’s things that they can do as a group inside City Hall that they can’t do outside,” he said.