The county Human Rights Commission has become so
compromised that residents can no longer be assured it will act as an advocate for people being discriminated against, the group's chairman said last week.
Roger W. Jones was livid following a tie vote Thursday night on a motion that commission members go on record as favoring the appointment of a gay or lesbian person as a member.
Mr. Jones saw the motion as additional support for Jan Nyquist at her confirmation hearing before the County Council tomorrow night. He said Ms. Nyquist had asked him earlier in the week if the commission would support her nomination, and he told her he did not know.
The deadlocked vote was a shock, Mr. Jones said, because the commission voted unanimously at a previous meeting to endorse the application of gay rights activist Robert Healy.
Thursday night's motion dealt with commission membership in general. No names were included -- a fact that only added to Mr. Jones' ire.
"It's damn, damn sad that we cannot even pass a motion assuring that the rights of gay persons are protected," he said. "The Human Rights Commission is a microcosm of society at large. We cannot get away from this gay issue. If people can't support the human rights law, they ought to get off the commission."
The county human rights law makes it a crime to discriminate against people in 13 protected categories, including sexual orientation.
The gay rights fight began late last year when County Executive Charles I. Ecker nominated the
Rev. Dana Walter Collett to serve on the commission. The County Council voted 3-2 along party lines to reject Mr. Collett.
Council members worried that Mr. Collett's support of a state law making the practice of homosexuality illegal would conflict with his enforcement of a county law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual preference.
Shortly after Mr. Collett's rejection, Mr. Healy, a Democratic gay rights activist, applied to serve on the commission. The commission endorsed him unanimously and for a while it appeared, Mr. Ecker would appoint him.
When Mr. Ecker refused, council Democrats held up Mr. Ecker's other nominees to the commission. Mr. Ecker said he had no problem nominating a gay or lesbian person to the commission, but he wanted the nominee to be his nominee and not the council's. He then nominated Ms. Nyquist.
Thursday night, Mr. Jones castigated Mr. Ecker -- who had accepted the commission's invitation to attend the meeting -- for refusing to appoint Mr. Healy to the commission. In refusing to appoint Mr. Healy, the executive was discriminating against him in one of three ways -- the fact that he lives in Columbia, the fact that he is a Democrat, or the fact of his sexual orientation, Mr. Jones said.
Mr. Ecker said he does not make appointments based on party affiliation. He said he does not think it is appropriate to question potential nominees as to their religion, politics or sexual orientation.
Mr. Ecker said he saw Thursday night's vote differently from Mr. Jones. The county executive said his understanding was that some people voted against the motion because they felt it was unnecessary -- since they had voted earlier for Mr. Healy, and Ms.Nyquist would likely be joining the board.
Mr. Ecker said he wants all 13 protected categories to be represented on the commission. "The commission has a very important role in helping resolve cases of alleged discrimination and a very important role in education -- something we need to do more of."
Mr. Jones agrees, but based on Thursday night's vote, he questions the commitment of some recent appointees to support and endorse equal rights for gays or lesbians.
Mr. Ecker believes the commissioners are committed to upholding all parts of the law. As for his relationship with Mr. Jones, Mr. Ecker characterized it as "good," saying he assumes it will continue that way.
"I encourage people to speak their peace," he said. "I am not offended by what [Mr. Jones] writes or says."