Independence Examiner, Saturday 11/15/03

County eyes impartial review of citizen complaints office

by James Dornbrook
The Examiner

An impartial review board may soon be asked to review the Jackson County Office of Human Relations and Citizens Com­plaints.

The OHRCC is an independent body with the power to investigate complaints of discrimination or other unfair practices relating to actions taken by county employ­ees or officers. According to the County Charter, its purpose is to, "Promote the improvement of human relations and the protec­tion of civil rights and civil liber­ties, all through educational pro­grams and the enactment of nec­essary or appropriate ordinances by the Legislature."

For several years, citizens have questioned whether the OHRCC has been living up to its intended purpose.

The most vocal of the citizens seeking reform is Bob Witbols­Feugen of Independence. He holds a sign at meetings of the County Legislature that states, "Review the OHRCC."

WitbolsFeugen is asking the Legislature to review a decision the OHRCC made on a complaint he filed. WitbolsFeugen says his complaint was never given a fair hearing, because a judge ruled the decision of the OHRCC was made during an illegally closed meet­ing.

The Legislature has refused to grant WitbolsFeugen a hearing. It did agree that the ongoing operations of the OHRCC should be reviewed. The Legislature asked County Executive Katheryn Shields to consider an independ­ent commission to look at possible reforms. Dennis Waits, chairman of the Legislature, said this approach was abandoned because it seemed headed for criticism and doubt before any findings or recommendations were made. WitbolsFeugen expressed concerns over the appointment process for the com­mission.

WitbolsFeugen says Shields has a conflict of interest in appointing a commission, because she appointed the mem­bers of the OHRCC also. Also, the county counselor's office also appointed by Shields has an interest in avoiding lawsuits against the county, so he says it should not be advising the OHRCC. WitbolsFeugen said the OHRCC should never consider concerns about lawsuits if it is following the purpose stated in the County Charter. Otherwise, he says, it is just helping the coun­ty avoid lawsuits, not helping citi­zens receive justice.

To avoid concerns over appointments, Waits said Acting County Counselor Jay Haden brought forward a compromise: Ask the United States Ombuds­man Association to conduct a review independent of Jackson County government.

"I am in the hopes the Legisla­ture will approve this course of action," Waits wrote in a letter to Legislators on Monday. "This will demonstrate our genuine interest in the functioning of OHRCC and will guarantee that the reviewing party is experienced and without bias."

Waits said the Legislature would not ask the association to look at any specific area, because that may infer the Legislature is trying to involve its own perspec­tive into the process. He said he wants the process to be exception­ally fair and open, untainted by bias.

WitbolsFeugen said if legisla­tors want the process to be unbi­ased, then they should not allow the county counselor's office to frame the questions to be answered by the ombudsman group.

"The framing of the question is the most important thing of all. They are only going to answer the questions they are being sent," WitbolsFeugen said. "The county counselor's involvement with the OHRCC is one of my biggest con­cerns. If the mission that the ombudsman is being asked to accomplish is set up by the county counselor's office, that defeats the whole purpose of having an inde­pendent agency come in and look at this."

WitbolsFeugen said the best way to proceed would be for the ombudsman to conduct a public hearing, talk to people who have filed complaints with the OHRCC and ask them how the complaints were handled.

"I’d also like to see the OHRCC hand over all, their records and say, ‘Here it all is. Go ahead and look at everything we've done.’ If the OHRCC has been doing busi­ness the way it is supposed to, there should be no problem," Wit­bolsFeugen said.

He wants a review of the OHRCC to be a similar to the State Tax Commission's review of the Assessment and Collection Departments. Despite repeated denials by the administration that anything was wrong, a review by the State Tax Commission point­ed out several problems and made recommendations, which county government followed up on.

To reach James Dornbrook e-mail or call 350-6322.
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