Salisbury explores forming a human rights commission

Following discussion by the Salisbury City Council, volunteers agreed to serve on an advisory committee to explore forming a human rights commission.

That commission would guide those who feel they are being discriminated against and don’t know where to go for help, said City Councilman Jim Ireton, who suggested the idea and said there are no other human rights commissions in the region.

“Maybe we should stand up and say, ‘This is not a place where we want those things to happen,’ that we are extending protections.

“I think it would be a wonderful thing for Salisbury. We would be the first one. It would be another notch in our belt that the city includes dozens of races and creeds in our city and of course the LGBT community,” Ireton said.

He showed Mayor Jake Day and fellow council members a Hyattsville, Md., anti-discrimination ordinance as an example. It makes it illegal to “engage in discriminatory conduct based on age, creed, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, disability, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or physical characteristics” and extends protection to employment, housing, real estate transactions and public accommodations.

Ireton said there are people in town who “want to say these things aren’t happening and are either scared to say something about it or don’t know where to go for fear of retaliation.”

City Attorney Mark Tilghman said city leaders can pass a law, but if they are going to create an enforcement mechanism they will need approval from the state legislature.

Council President Jack Heath, participating in the meeting via conference call, said there are enough laws, but by creating an advisory committee, “I would say we are sending the message that Jim wants to get as a first step.”

“This is going to become more and more complicated as we go so we better get some experience up front and see if this committee has the kind of action we think we’re going to get, then we can proceed further,” Heath said.

Day said if there’s a gap in city law with respect to discrimination, city leaders can fix it. City Council could create an advisory committee and empower members to “plug holes in our code if they are there, if there are areas where discrimination is legal,” he said.

“Advisory committee members can do that and make recommendations, then we can ask the state for power for an ordinance,” he said.

“You have the right to be whatever you want to be and you should not be discriminated against,” said Councilwoman April Jackson. “Some of these people who are discriminated against are to the point of being suicidal,” she said, during discussion at a recent work session,

Councilman Muir Boda said he would also like to see city leaders make available a list of resources “for kids who are struggling” and for conflict resolution.

Day suggested legislation be drafted by Tilghman, then reviewed by City Council. Tilghman agreed to have a draft ready by the next work session.

He advised that the commission keep a narrow focus “that really hits where the problem is.”

Council Vice President Laura Mitchell invited public comment.

City resident Kim Johnson said it’s unfortunate “that times have become what they have become, that people can’t be themselves and be covered under law or respected” and called for city leaders to “take action.”

A man who spoke said he knows of school children coming to town who speak different languages and transgender students in elementary schools. The city’s demographics are changing and city officials must be proactive, he said.

“It’s about time,” said retired teacher Dorothy Yeatman.

“This have been a very interesting town to grow up in. Those of us in our day, who were different, had to escape from this town as soon as possible to have any kind of quality of life. You have to understand this affects people very deeply and permanently. I would like to do anything I can to help you out,” she said.

A man who introduced himself as a new resident said the wise have observed that civilizations are judged by what they do, and don’t do, in terms of the vulnerable.

“I think this step is important. There is obviously a lot of detail that needs to be worked out … this is the time for something like this to happen,” he said.

A woman who works in a department store said two co-workers recently told her they were treated rudely because another co-worker “thought they were a couple.”

“I really hate to see that in our city,” she said, adding an ordinance against discrimination will protect those who have alternative lifestyles or are perceived to.

Agreeing, Ireton said the city has “incredible diversity.”

“The diversity we see Downtown at 3rd Friday or 1st Saturday, that is what’s going on. Buildings are nice and they will come but there have to be people in those buildings … There is a group of Salisbury residents who have never felt like they were home,” Ireton said.

He thanked Heath for agreeing to put his idea for a commission on the City Council work session, following killings at a nightclub in Orlando that targeted the LGBT community.

“These are the things that move us forward — emotionally, professionally, morally — and give us a sense of ownership in our town,” Ireton said.

“This is a good step.”

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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