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Berea Human Rights Commission: There’s Good News and Bad News

10.08.11 01:42 PM – Andy McDonald
Now that the dust has settled a bit on the battle over the Fairness Ordinance, it’s time to take stock of exactly what it all means for the city of Berea.

The way I see it, there have been some positive and not-so-positive developments to come out of this latest brouhaha.

Good News: Most of Berea’s city council members had the moxie to make an unpopular choice when they thought it served justice. The easy thing would have been to take a dive on the question of the Human Rights Commission. Whether one agrees with their final decision or not, they stuck to their guns when the politically smart play would have been to kill the proposal by delaying it indefinitely.

Bad News: The administration hurried this decision, and in doing so took a stand at a time when public distrust of government is at an all-time high. A lot of citizens are frustrated with government on all levels because they feel elected officials just aren’t listening to them anymore. And if it is true that the legitimacy of government is derived from the consent of the governed, many Bereans feel the move to implement a Human Rights Commission is an illegitimate act – done without their consent.

In the past, the city of Berea has conducted surveys to collect citizens’ views on everything from naming the park on Chestnut Street to designing park and recreation facilities. The fact that a survey wasn’t done on this controversial issue seems odd. It unwittingly sends the message to some that Berea officials made up their minds ahead of time. The purpose of the Human Rights Commission is to make government more caring and responsive to the needs of Berea citizens. But for many, this decision may have exactly the opposite effect - making local government seem more remote and seemingly unresponsive to the wishes of a majority of residents.

Good News: Berea has an activist mayor and council, both of whom are proactive and willing to commit resources to try new policies.

Bad News: Government does not always expand because it should. Sometimes government grows simply because it can. The council opened the door to the growth of the Human Rights Commission when it included a caveat that an operating budget for the HRC would be submitted to the city council.

The Human Rights Commission will probably do as most organizations - expand its reach and scope of responsibility as more money becomes available every budget year. It won’t necessarily grow in relation to how much it is actually needed. Instead, it could grow in proportion to the amount of political pressure exerted on city council members. In that scenario, funding would be driven by politics, not policy. Remember the Bereans for Fairness march on City Hall? We may be seeing them again every year at budget time.

Good News: The fight over the proposed Fairness Ordinance has spurred new citizen interest in Berea politics.

Bad News: The Fairness Ordinance was a wedge issue that divided elected officials into two distinct camps: heroes and bigots. The trouble is that those who are today’s heroes may well be tomorrow’s losers at the polls, and that could ultimately be a setback for the effectiveness of our local government.

Voters who are angry about the establishment of the Human Rights Commission won’t care that Vi Farmer has been a steady hand that participated in umpteen balanced budgets in a row; they won’t care that Virgil Burnside is competent and knowledgeable, and that he’s done his job effectively for years.

Instead, angry citizens may cast their votes based on this one issue. That's bad for everybody. Their objective will be to send a loud message: You don’t win elections in Berea by listening to the ACLU or the Herald-Leader; you win elections by listening to your constituents.

In 2008, voters were angered enough by tax increases to pull the chain on half of the city council. For Berea City Council incumbents, the coming bloodbath in 2012 has the potential to be much worse.

Is a Human Rights Commission needed in the city of Berea? It's very possible. But I still think more information should have been gathered before a final decision was made.

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