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LAST RIGHTS

COLORADO SPRINGS' HUMAN RELATIONS COMMISSION SUFFERS A MELTDOWN.

In most places the disappearance of a low-level city panel would register barely a blip on people's personal radar screens. But most places aren't Colorado Springs, where every civic move seems to be invested with enough meaning and symbolism to provide work for a generation of laid-off Kremlinologists.

The panel in peril is the city's Human Relations Commission, whose fate the Colorado Springs City Council is scheduled to decide this week. The sentiment seems to run toward deep-sixing the 15-member advisory group, at least for several months, if not forever.

There are numerous reasons Springs residents might want the commission out of commission. Not many citizens, for instance, have forgotten the commission's role in the 1992 passage of the anti-gay initiative Amendment 2--more or less the equivalent of a hockey team's scoring a goal against itself.

For the council, however, the most compelling reason seems to be the HRC's recent tendency to grab headlines for its decidedly unharmonious behavior. The latest example: In April, Commissioner Vincent D'Acchioli compared local gay rights group Ground Zero to the Ku Klux Klan.

The Minority Coalition, an umbrella advocacy group to which several civil rights groups belong, responded two weeks ago by threatening to purchase space on billboards and in national newspapers billing Colorado Springs as a place where "intolerance prevails." In the meantime, a handful of other human relations commissioners have barraged councilors with letters demanding D'Acchioli's dismissal. For his part, D'Acchioli has taken to describing the HRC as "a lame body that doesn't need to exist."

Councilman John Hazlehurst explains that he, for one, does not need the grief. "What you have is a group of diverse people sitting around trying to come up with something to do," he says, "and so it has become highly politicized.

"If we had given it the name Community Combat Commission and assigned it the goal of exacerbating tensions in the community, then we could say with confidence that they'd done their job admirably."

The fracas over the HRC probably wouldn't mean much if it weren't for the group's unintentional--yet crucial--role in Amendment 2 and the indelible mark that the anti-gay rights legislation continues to leave on Colorado Springs in particular.

In 1988, commissioners asked the city council for permission to create a human rights ordinance and for broader powers for itself. By the time the proposed legislation landed on the councilors' desks in 1991, however, it had been broadened to contain a provision banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Despite the fear of several commissioners that Colorado Springs, which is home to numerous evangelical Christian organizations, was not quite ready to embrace gay rights, the panel decided to present the proposal to the council anyway.

The media and religious groups quickly picked up on the wording, and the publicity caught the attention of, among others, local car dealer Will Perkins. Although similar measures already had passed in Denver, Boulder and Aspen, Perkins recalls that the Colorado Springs HRC's vigorous effort set off loud alarms because it was literally so close to home.

"The whole thrust of their ordinance was to achieve protected-class status for homosexual behavior," he recalls. The HRC's proposal galvanized Perkins to form Colorado for Family Values and begin a statewide petition drive against all such measures. It resulted in Amendment 2, passed in 1992. To this day Perkins says he has the Colorado Springs Human Relations Commission to thank for the victory.

Even before Amendment 2, however, the HRC was beginning to founder. To the surprise of no one, in the spring of 1991 city council slammed the commission's proposed human rights ordinance in an 8-1 vote, largely because of the sexual-orientation clause.

City officials also seemed intent on sharing some of the heat they'd absorbed because of the commission's controversial proposal. In early 1991 they began eviscerating the HRC, first by removing its director, Jim Reinhardt, who'd headed the commission for twenty years. The official explanation was that Reinhardt was being jettisoned because of his management style. But it was an open secret that he was paying the price for forcing a council vote on the gay-rights ordinance. Soon after Reinhardt left, the council, citing budgetary concerns, gutted the remainder of the HRC's paid staff.

The remaining volunteer commissioners didn't fare much better. After their three years of work had been publicly shot down, the HRC drifted. "After the ordinance failed," recalls Andi Leopoldus, who left the commission last January after five years, "we had 50 percent turnover in commissioners. When we were preparing the ordinance, nobody would've missed a meeting. After it failed, I had to cancel meetings because we didn't have a quorum."

She continues: "Without the paid staff the rest of us were left to wonder what was going on. The commission was pretty demoralized. The community was pretty hostile to us, we were unfocused, and it was hard to get momentum for anything. We spent a lot of time talking about what we should be doing."

Left without any specific tasks (its charter says the HRC will "advise the city manager and the community at large on issues affecting cultural understanding and social harmony"), the commission seems to have spent much of the past three years casting about for a job description.

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