Independence Examiner, Tuesday, 03/08/05

Human relations panel might face changes

By James Dornbrook
The Examiner

As the Jackson County Legislature searches for ways to reform its citizen complaints office, it constantly encounters situations that require amending the County Charter.

Legislators are considering two resolutions to reform the Office of Human Relations and Citizens Complaints.

One resolution would in crease the pay of commissioners, in an attempt to make it easier to find people willing to serve. This resolution also sets aside $5,000 for the commission to hire independent legal counsel to address concerns about cases in which the county counselor's office may have a conflict of interest in representing the OHRCC. However, the charter states that the county counselor has all powers and duties to handle legal issues involving all county officers, departments and commissions. So the county counselor may have to agree there is a conflict of interest and sign off on using this fund for independent legal advice, unless this section of the charter is amended.

The first resolution also would allow commissioners to forfeit their membership for missing more than two monthly meetings. Roger Davis, chairman of the Human Relations and Citizens Complaints Commission, said he opposes to this clause,be cause he believes it violates the charter.

"Until the charter is changed, this body was designed to operate as an independent body, and will continue to do so," Davis said. "However, we are willing to take suggestions and recommendations that are constructive and help us improve. We appreciate your assistance in this regard."

The second resolution, introduced by Legislator Robert String field, asks commissioners to pledge they will attend monthly meetings unless excused for cause. It asks for a countywide search to find new commission applicants. The most controversial aspect of this resolution is it asks Davis to resign.

Stringfield introduced evidence showing Davis received more than 20 letters from Sid Willens, a founder of the OHRCC, with suggestions for reform. Stringfield said Davis didn't reply to any of the letters.

Davis said criticizing himself and members of his commission is not a good way to head down the road to reform. Davis said many of the letters did not require a return answer and added that he did call Willens on one occasion. Davis said this telephone call was not a conversation between two people, but a 20-minute rant by Willens.

"I'm disappointed in this resolution. I feel it attempts to tear down the commission and denigrate the current commissioners," Davis said. "Let's work together to improve the OHRCC. Requesting resignations and asking for belittling pledges of the current commissioners is counterproductive."

Davis said his commission is studying an independent review of the OHRCC, conducted by Duncan Fowler. Davis said he will report back to the Legislature with ideas on how to implement the recommendations in the Fowler report.

Legislators Dennis Waits, who submitted the first resolution, said he introduced it as a work in progress. He said his goal was to get conversations going and find ideas.

"Some of these things are simply expressions from the Legislature that we would like to see some changes," Waits said. "I think if we pass this (resolution) with some modifications, and express our intent to move on, then we will see what the OHRCC does and the commission does. Then, if we think charter chang es are appropriate, we'll take that up at the appropriate time."

During a hearing on the resolutions, citizen John Pennell said he was concerned that the OHRCC would never be truly an independent organization as long as the Legislature controlled its budget. He said the budget of the OHRCC has been basically stagnant for the last 10 years. Pennell said would support an effort to set aside an independent fund for the OHRCC.

Legislator Henry Rizzo, chairman of the Finance & Audit Committee, said the hearings would continue in two weeks. Hearings will be on March 21, in the second floor legislative chambers of the downtown Kansas City courthouse. A time has not been set.

To reach James Dornbrook, call (816) 350-6322 or e-mail
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