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4 Members of Human Rights Panel Resign

Santa Barbara County: They clashed with colleagues over issues such as same-sex unions and slavery reparations.

April 08, 2002|VERONIQUE DE TURENNE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Four of 15 members of a commission created to promote tolerance and understanding in Santa Barbara County resigned last week, accusing their colleagues of using the group as a forum to disparage America.

"[The commission] is a soapbox for those who wish to run down America and criticize the ideals and values that have made it a success and the envy of the world," said the letter of resignation.

The departing commissioners said they hope their dramatic gesture shakes up the county and changes the way the group operates.

Commissioners Ed Hennon, Peter Adams, Tony Fox and Jerry Sherrod launched the latest chapter of discontent in the group's sometimes rocky 11-year history with their April 1 resignations. The defections followed a public spat at the commission's March meeting, where members clashed over the issue of reparations to descendants of American slaves.

When the quartet found themselves on the losing end of a vote to write Congress urging that reparations be made, they decided to quit.

"Our mission is to make the opportunities in Santa Barbara County available to each person without discrimination, not to spend time debating things we have no control over," said Hennon, 77, a retired aluminum company executive from Orcutt. "The commission has become involved in partisan politics and personal agendas and the broader mission is gone."

The departing commissioners had previously found themselves in the conservative minority on many of the panel's liberal stances. Hot-button topics included same-sex unions and the commission's decision to denounce the Boy Scouts of America for discriminating against gays.

But their supporters say the problem stems from a pair of county supervisors who want to disband the Human Relations Commission and so have appointed people to it who disagree with its mission.

"We've had some supervisors who don't care for the commission and have made inappropriate appointments in the past several years for the sole purpose of wreaking the sort of havoc we're seeing now," Supervisor Gail Marshall said. "These have tended to undermine the group's mission, which is unfortunate at this time of divisiveness in the world."

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Group's Mandate Is to Promote Tolerance

The Human Relations Commission, formed in 1991, is one of 37 commissions and committees in Santa Barbara County. Staffed by volunteers appointed by county supervisors, the group's mandate, written by the supervisors, is to "promote tolerance and understanding between divergent groups throughout Santa Barbara County." Tolerance and understanding among the members, however, has sometimes been in short supply.

Within a year of its formation, the group struggled through a snarl of personality conflicts and infighting. County leaders decided to reorganize it, paring down the commission's membership from 21 to 15--three appointees per supervisorial district--and adopting bylaws. The group has an annual budget of about $170,000, which pays for an administrative staff and miscellaneous operating costs.

In addition to same-sex partnerships and the Boy Scouts' stand on gay rights, the commission tackles issues as diverse as "junk" guns and overnight camping in cars. Keith Davis, the commission's administrator, says the group sponsors forums and educational events throughout the county, and advises county lawmakers on policy.

"We made a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors which helped craft the county's sweatshop ordinance," Davis said. "Because of it, the county is prohibited from purchasing clothing from distributors who are partners with sweatshops--that's $250,000 a year that has to be spent in a more enlightened way."

Last week's dispute stemmed from an upcoming exhibit in Santa Barbara of a slave ship, the Henrietta Marie.

"Fifteen thousand kids will tour the slave ship exhibit--they'll see artifacts and pieces of the ship and they'll have questions about it all," Davis said. "Slavery is not a taboo subject, and the commission takes seriously its role in discussing issues which are complex. Unfortunately, sometimes our voices are lost in the emotions of the issue."

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Schism Between North and South Growing

Geography may also play a part in the commission's woes. The departures highlight a growing schism in Santa Barbara County between the rural, conservative north and the increasingly urban, more liberal south.

"There's a deep north-south county split," said Supervisor Joni Gray, who had appointed two of the commissioners who quit. "A vast majority of the people in the north are tied to the land, with farming and mining and building. We have a different way of looking at life than the south county, and so we often clash on values."

Although the departing commissioners asked that their seats remain vacant, Gray said she wants to think things over before deciding what to do. She favors blending the Human Relations Commission with the existing Affirmative Action Commission and the Commission for Women.

"I think the people in the Human Relations Commission have their hearts in the right place, but their emphasis seems to wander a bit," Gray said. "I'm just going to let this all sink in, talk with my constituents and see what they'd like to see happen."

Supervisor Tom Urbanske, who also lost two appointed commissioners in the squabble, knows exactly what he'd like to see happen.

"I'd like to see it go away, just get rid of it because it tends to divide people and makes them back away from civility," Urbanske said. "You call it commission? I call it commotion."

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