Feud between chairman, members of rights panel expected to rage on

August 16, 1992|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

Members of the County Human Rights Commission may want to come to Thursday night's meeting armed with a supply of ice water.

But even that may not be enough to cool a monthlong verbal brawl that has seen Roger W. Jones resign as chairman after calling on three other commissioners to quit the commission altogether.

"I'm ashamed to be chairman, but afraid to leave the membership," Mr. Jones said last week. "I'm gonna keep those guys honest. I don't care what they say or what they do. I'm gonna be on their case. And I don't need to be chairman to do that."

The "guys" Mr. Jones is referring to are Commissioners Robert Birdsong Jr., Dr. Virgilio Blanco and the Rev. Roland W. Howard. Mr. Jones questions their commitment to uphold the county human rights law, especially the portion outlawing discrimination the basis of sexual orientation.

What triggered Mr. Jones' ire was a tie vote on a motion at the commission's July 16 meeting. The motion called for the commission to endorse having a gay member.

Mr. Jones, David Marker and Harold L. Williams voted for the motion. Mr. Birdsong, Dr. Blanco and Mr. Howard voted against it. Vice Chairwoman Lucie R. Pelgrim and Commissioner Mary Lorette Lowe were absent.

Mr. Jones wanted to use the motion to support the nomination of Jan Nyquist, a lesbian whose appointment was later confirmed by the County Council July 27. Ms. Nyquist will be joining the commission this week along with newcomers Verna Lawes and Veronica B. Mariani.

The motion and subsequent tie vote at the July 16 meeting

followed Mr. Jones' criticism of County Executive Charles I. Ecker for not appointing gay activist Robert Healy to the commission. The commission had earlier unanimously endorsed Mr. Healy's candidacy.

Mr. Jones said he thought commission members who voted against the motion did so because they were intimidated by the presence of Mr. Ecker at the meeting.

Those voting against the motion said they felt the commission had already expressed its support for the appointment of agay commissioner and did not need to do so again. Regardless, Mr. Jones publicly castigated the commission for its failure to support the motion, saying members who could not support gay and lesbian rights should resign.

Mr. Birdsong, meanwhile, wrote Mr. Ecker apologizing for the way Mr. Jones conducted the July 16 meeting.

"I believe the discussion on the closed matter of an appointment of Bob Healy to the Human Rights Commission was at best exceedingly unprofessional, and, at worst, downright disrespectful and rude to you as county executive," Mr. Birdsong wrote in a July 26 letter. "Only negative results can flow from such unprofessional conduct."

Mr. Birdsong sent copies of his letter to the other commissioners.

Four days later, Mr. Jones sent Mr. Birdsong a scathing letter along with copies to the other commissioners.

"It is not uncommon for gutless, spineless snivelers to be embarrassed by the actions of men of mettle," Mr. Jones told Mr. Birdsong. "I don't buy your excuse" for voting against the generalized motion endorsing gay membership on the commission.

"I believe you are a liar," Mr. Jones said. "And if you don't believe in gay rights, you should have the guts to publicly say so and remove yourself from the membership of the Human Rights Commission. . . . The only fiasco I have encountered on the commission was your appointment" by former County Executive Elizabeth M. Bobo.

Mr. Jones followed that up with an Aug. 9 letter to commission Vice Chairwoman Lucie R. Pelgrim, saying he was resigning in protest as chairman of the commission.

Mr. Jones told Ms. Pelgrim he believes the three commissioners who voted against the generalized motion July 16 "clearly

violated the county human rights laws" and are incapable of performing their duties and responsibilities as commissioners.

Mr. Birdsong is away on vacation and will miss Thursday night's meeting. Regardless, the commission will have to deal with Mr. Jones' resignation of the chairmanship and is expected to deal as well with his allegations that Mr. Birdsong, Dr. Blanco and Mr. Howard are incapable of performing their duties and should resign.

bTC According to its bylaws, the commission must elect a new chairman each October. Commissioners will have to decide whether to elect a new chairman for the interim or ask Mr. Jones to retain his post for two more months.

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