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.