Voters will decide the fate of the Anoka Human Rights Commission next year after the City Council refused to go back on its choice to dissolve the commission.
In March a divided City Council voted to disband the commission, but five citizens circulated a referendum petition that forced the council to revisit the issue. With 380 verified signatures from registered voters in Anoka, the petition met the threshold laid out in the City Charter, which meant the council had to reverse course or send the question to voters.
On June 7 the council voted 4-1 to uphold its decision to disband the commission, with Council Member Erik Skogquist dissenting. Mayor Phil Rice, who had previously voted to keep the commission, said he still supported it, but at this point he felt the question should go to voters. By voting to uphold the decision, he said, he was essentially voting to put the question on the ballot.
A little background
Community interest in the commission initially spiked last August when the city was poised to abolish the long-dormant body, which hadn’t met since 2012. After public outcry, the council decided to keep the commission. Back then, Council Member Elizabeth Barnett was the lone vote against it. 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 voted 3-2 to dissolve the commission, with Rice and Skogquist dissenting.
Revisiting the issue
When the referendum petition forced the council to revisit the issue June 7, Barnett had scathing words about the commission, saying “failure and inactivity have been the hallmark of the Human Rights Commission within the city of Anoka.” She suggested that the people in favor of keeping the commission as a city entity are afraid they won’t be able to raise enough funds or drum up enough interest in their “club.”
Barnett said the only accomplishment the commission can claim is the creation of a community garden, but she said commissioners merely drew out a plan on paper and city staff did most of the work.
Barnett said the purpose of the Human Rights Commission is similar to that of the Planning Commission — to advise the council on specific and technical issues that the council doesn’t have time to review in full. But she said human rights aren’t complicated.
“It does not take us hundreds of man-hours to understand fairness and dignity,” she said.
She also asked why the commission needs to be a city entity instead of a nonprofit organization similar to Transformative Circle in Coon Rapids.
Council Member Erik Skogquist said it’s important for the group to be a city commission so it can have the council’s ear and actually advise the council.
“There’s a difference between being an outside group and being an advisory council,” he said.
He added that other commissions also rely on city staff to do a lot of the work and said the point of commissions “is to be a different set of ears” to bring in outside perspectives.
“To say it’s not important that we have different folks in the city advising and even looking at some of these topics, to me, is crazy,” Skogquist said.
“We as the city need volunteers that want to help and want to do some of the heavy lifting for us,” he went on to say. “That’s how I view this group. I see this group as a group that’s ... able to go out in the community to interact.”
He said he was disappointed that the conversation had devolved into “outlandish” claims and that the majority of the council didn’t seem to care that 380 citizens said the commission was important.
“Maybe we should look at it,” he said. “Maybe we can compromise.”
Because the council ultimately voted to uphold its decision to disband the commission, the City Charter dictates the issue must go on the ballot. The council unanimously agreed it wouldn’t make sense to spend $30,000 on a special election and decided to include the question on the November 2022 ballot.
Until then, the Human Rights Commission will continue to exist. But the council plans to have a work session to discuss logistics for the interim period, such as how often the commission will meet and what the commission can do.