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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.

"There has been little consensus on any issue," complains Councilman Bill Guman, the council's liaison to the HRC. "They seem to be more concerned about the business of doing business instead of any topic they're supposed to concentrate on. It's like the bastard child that nobody wants. The commission is an embarrassment."

When the HRC has not been honing the finer points of what it is, it has taken to debating ideology--and without much civility. In fact, the group whose duty it is to promote diversity has given the word a bad name and, in so doing, has become a sort of chessboard battleground for the political tensions that seethe through the city.

Many people--in Colorado Springs' conservative and liberal communities--thank Vincent D'Acchioli for that. A born-again Christian from California, D'Acchioli worked until last week for a missionary organization called Every Home for Christ. Currently he organizes seminars on men's issues for a company called Path Levelers.

D'Acchioli was appointed to the HRC in December 1992. It is unclear who approached whom--city officials have a 1992 letter in which D'Acchioli suggests he would be a good commissioner, while, in an interview, he says he was called to serve and did not solicit the position. Whichever, D'Acchioli fit well into an attempt by the council after the failure of the gay-rights ordinance to appoint commissioners representative of the city's increasingly influential conservatives.

The policy quickly began to produce philosophical fissures in the still largely liberal commission. Leopoldus recalls one time in early 1993 when she tried to convince the HRC to take a close look at a new zoning ordinance being proposed for Colorado Springs. The commission, she suggested, should try to ensure that the zoning did not discriminate against people in group homes for the disabled. Unfortunately, she says, the panel was unable to come to any consensus because several commissioners representing religious groups did not even agree with the concept of group homes.

Colleen Bray, a five-year member of the commission, says she understands wanting to have Colorado Springs' population better represented on the HRC. Yet she sees the appointment of people like D'Acchioli as part of an orchestrated campaign by city council to disrupt the panel. "When you appoint people to the parks and recreation board, you don't get people who want to kill trees and pollute the air," she says.

Although he had been outspoken from the beginning, D'Acchioli strode firmly between the HRC's widening camps during an April 14 commission meeting at which the panel was discussing whether individual commissioners needed permission to meet with community groups. Characteristically, he was blunt.

"If I were asked by the Ku Klux Klan to attend one of their board meetings as a representative of this commission, a number of you would probably have a difficult time with that," he said, adding that "if another person on this commission were asked to attend a board meeting where there might be groups--I'll just take one that has formed around the issue of homosexuality--I would be as offended, if not more, than anyone who might be offended by our attending a KKK meeting. In fact, in my view, the [gay-rights group] has a much more damaging effect on our country than the former--but that's my opinion."

Not surprisingly, D'Acchioli's comments caught the attention of the city's Minority Coalition, a loose conglomeration of gay, minority and human-rights groups. At the HRC's May meeting, about a dozen coalition members demanded that the other commissioners can D'Acchioli and then stood in the hallway singing "We Shall Overcome."

Two weeks later, on May 24, Minority Coalition representatives appeared at a city council meeting and demanded that D'Acchioli be removed from the HRC. If he wasn't, they vowed to purchase space in newspapers and on four billboards on the edge of the city that would say, "Warning: Colorado Springs: Intolerance Prevails."

Today, D'Acchioli insists that the whole spat is over nothing. "No one knows who the Minority Coalition is in this community, and no one cares," he says. As for Ground Zero, the local gay-rights group he compared to the KKK, "They're very supportive of homosexual rights and the promotion of the homosexual lifestyle. Personally, I have a problem with that."

Besides, he explains, the point he was trying to make by comparing Ground Zero to the Klan was that the HRC simply can't pay attention to every group that demands it.

"Two homosexuals can buy a used computer and fire it up in their garage and everybody's supposed to take notice of that?" he says. "What about a group next week that would like to have sex with 300-pound pigs? The Human Relations Commission is supposed to take care of that group, too?"

Finally, he says that after a year and a half on the commission, he has become convinced that there is no need for it. "The Human Relations Commission in Colorado Springs, in the length of time that I've been on it, has done absolutely, positively nothing," he says. "What it has become is a place for people to bring their personal agendas and hot buttons. It needs to be shut down."

The council seems to agree. "It's really ironic," notes Councilman Guman, "that the Human Relations Commission is supposed to be reaching out to the community, and they can't even reach out to each other."

At an informal meeting early last week, councilors agreed that the HRC ought to take a break from itself. A vote on whether or not to suspend the panel's operations for up to six months while lawmakers examine the HRC's mission was scheduled for this week. The consensus among most observers is that city officials will pull the HRC's plug.

"That kind of fighting and jostling for position we like to feel is reserved for elected officials," says Councilman Hazlehurst. "I mean, we're expected to act like jerks. Politicians like to create their own trouble. We don't like to appoint people to do it.

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