Chairman Charges Censorship

Human Rights Panel's Critiques Said To Be Ignored

April 07, 1991|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff writer

The chairman of the county Human Rights Commission says he has "about 90 percent decided to resign" because of what he perceives as an attempt to censor his continuing criticism of county government.

TheCounty Council last week tabled the reappointment of commission chairman Roger W. Jones because he was absent from a recent council work session.

Jones called the council action "embarrassing to say the least," saying it "does damage to my credibility."

Jones, who has served on the commission for five years, said no one had invited him to the council work session. He learned his appointment was being tabled onlywhile watching a live cable television broadcast of the meeting.

Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, said he had wanted Jones to attend the work session so the council could discuss a letter Jones wrote to a local newspaper criticizing Citizens Services Director ManusJ. O'Donnell. O'Donnell oversees the commission's budget.

Councilmembers recently agreed to table the appointment of anyone who failsto appear before them when invited, something of which Jones was unaware.

Gray said Jones was not notified to attend due to a "snafu" in the office.

"I regret what happened," said Gray, who supports Jones' reappointment. "I, in no way, intented to embarrass or insult him. He has been a very good chairman of the commission."

The council has not yet rescheduled a meeting with Jones.

The commission's function is to investigate and conduct hearings regarding alleged human rights violations in the county, including those alleged to have occurred within county government itself.

The government has not always been kind to such inquiries. Former Circuit Court Clerk C. Merritt Pumphrey, for example, filed criminal charges in 1987 against a past commission chairman when the commission alleged hiring bias in Pumphrey's office.

When the commission said the previous council might be guilty of discrimination in its hiring practices, one council member suggested the commission be disbanded as unnecessary, and another said that what the council does is none of the commission's business.

Because Jones and others on the nine-member commission have criticized county government for a lack of cooperation, Jones wonders if the council's postponement is an attempt to silence him and a warning to others.

"I am a person who has been attacking government at will," he says.

His most recent attack was a letter published March 21 in the Howard County Times and the Columbia Flier. Jones criticized O'Donnell's proposal to cut the rights commission budget "by a whopping 60 percent" and accused O'Donnell of "constant interference and meddling."

Jones was not specific in his letter but said "for years, the commission has had problems with (O'Donnell's) attitude regarding human rights issues." He wrote that the commission would work more effectively under the County Council or county executive.

Bothstatements attracted Gray, who said he wanted the council to hear Jones' concerns. Attempts to reach Jones on Friday were unsuccessful.

O'Donnell, meanwhile, responded to Jones in a letter published alongside Jones'.

"I thank Mr. Jones for his personal comments, but his facts are wrong," O'Donnell wrote. "The Human Rights Commission Budget is being cut less than any other advisory board's in the citizen services budget."

At last Thursday's commission meeting, Jones said he found it nettlesome that while his reappointment is postponed and the reappointment of Commissioner Thomas H. Hartman appears to be in trouble, the county "has no problem allowing Madonna Wyatt to retain her seat as a housing commissioner after she called people 'niggers.' "

Wyatt, who served two years as a police liaison in Columbia'sCopperstone Circle apartment complex, was dropped from the liaison program because she used the word "niggers" in a complaint call to thedepartment's communications center. She was not dropped from the housing commission.

Wyatt, who is white, admitted to using the derogatory term in a call to the department's communication center, referring not to blacks, but "some ignorant, stupid people who were causing trouble."

"I hate to see her outlast me," Jones said.

One of the human rights commission members whose on-again, off-again reappointment appears to be on-again is David Marker. His term expired in March 1990.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker wrote Marker on Feb. 12,saying he planned to reappoint him.

A week later, Marker receivedanother letter from Ecker, saying, "I find that I am unable to reappoint you for the Human Rights Commission as stated in the (Feb. 12) letter and therefore must regretfully withdraw your name from the legislative agenda for March."

The letter did not explain why.

Jones speculated in testimony before the council March 15 that Marker's appointment may have been withdrawn for political reasons. Ecker is a Republican and Marker is a former member of the Democratic Central Committee.

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