Lawes resigns from Human Rights panel She claims threat was made to her

December 24, 1992|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

Verna Lawes has resigned from the Human Rights Commission after four months' service, saying the commission is contaminated by "an atmosphere of general hostility and unpleasantness."

"From the onset, I found the commission mired down in divisiveness," Ms. Lawes said in a Dec. 16 resignation letter to County Executive Charles I. Ecker and members of the County Council.

"Issues other than those pertaining to our functions and duties [were] promoted [amid] an atmosphere of general hostility and unpleasantness," she told the executive and council members. "I feel the interests of the citizens of this county are not being served in this type of environment."

In addition, Ms. Lawes "received a phone call of a threatening nature" from an unnamed commissioner and has been "verbally harassed" by an unnamed commissioner in a commission meeting, she said in her resignation letter.

Ms. Lawes was unavailable for comment and did not respond to repeated messages left on her answering machine.

Mr. Ecker blamed himself in part for Ms. Lawes' resignation. "The county has done a poor job orienting new members of [citizen] boards and commissions -- especially the Human Rights Commission," he said. "You have to tell people what to expect -- what their roles and responsibilities are."

Mr. Ecker said he will initiate an orientation program soon for new members of county commissions. He said he plans to meet with Ms. Lawes to discuss her resignation.

Ms. Lawes was confirmed as a member of the commission July 27, along with Veronica B. Mariani and Jan Nyquist. Ms. Nyquist, a lesbian and a gay rights activist, was elected chairwoman of the commission Dec. 17.

Ms. Lawes and Ms. Mariani were to have been confirmed as commissioners in June, but the council put their nominations on hold because Mr. Ecker had refused to nominate gay rights activist Robert Healy to the commission.

Mr. Ecker said at the time that he had no objection to appointing a gay person to the commission, but he wanted the person to be his nominee and not the council's. Mr. Ecker then nominated Ms. Nyquist to the commission.

Following Ms. Nyquist's nomination, Roger W. Jones, who was the commission chairman, asked the commission to pass a resolution that would endorse having gay people serve on the commission.

Some commissioners said the resolution was unnecessary in that the commission had earlier voted unanimously to endorse Mr. Healy's candidacy. The vote on the new resolution ended in a tie.

Mr. Jones protested the tie vote by resigning as chairman, but not as a commissioner. He called for the resignation of the commissioners who voted against the second resolution, saying they were opposed to the county's human rights laws.

The dispute heated up when opposing commissioners sent angry letters to each other and circulated them among commission members. The contentiousness has continued ever since. Commissioners vowed last week to put aside their differences for the good of the county.

"I am sorry for the tensions that exist for the moment," said County Council Chairwoman Shane Pendergrass, D-1st. "I am optimistic they will be resolved. I am obviously sorry that [Ms. Lawes'] feelings are hurt."

"You're going to have differences of opinion," Mr. Ecker said. "Diversity is a good thing. It's good to air feelings and it's also important to respect each other's opinions. Everyone ought to say what they think and listen to what others think."

The commission is a microcosm of society, Ms. Pendergrass said. "Society has trouble dealing with these issues, and the people representing the various parts of society on the commission have trouble working them out. I recently had conversations with some people on the commission and I think )) they're trying -- I really do."

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