Human Rights Commission struggles to find place in Pittsfield

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PITTSFIELD — After 11 people were gunned down in a Pittsburgh synagogue last year, city Human Rights Commission Chairman Drew Herzig wanted to take a stand.

He drafted a resolution that he felt addressed the issues that prompted the tragedy and brought it to the commission for a vote.

But passage of the resolution condemning white supremacy, white nationalism and anti-Semitism met resistance from a powerful member of the group.

"When you pick one and you don't acknowledge the rest," council President Peter Marchetti said at the time, "it makes it look like you're serving one particular purpose or you're on a crusade for something."

Herzig argued that commissioners should have the discretion to act on timely issues of their choosing.

"I'm sorry we keep getting painted into this corner," he responded. "I philosophically disagree with Peter Marchetti's position, but I do understand it."

Since the November conversation, these types of disagreements have the group in a holding pattern. For Herzig, the back-and-forth forced an important question that he posed to his colleagues: "Why are we here?"

"It kind of all came to a head," he told The Eagle, noting the measure remains under consideration by the commission.

No one wants innocent people to be killed in a shooting. That much is easy for reasonable people to agree on. But which issues — global, national or local — should the local Human Rights Commission take up? And how should the commission wield its power? Those are the types of stickier questions that have commission leaders stumbling.

Herzig wants to see the commission oppose human rights violations as they arise, but Marchetti would like to see the commission teach and talk to the public before taking a stand. This push and pull comes amid a larger existential crisis for the commission, which last year shook loose its ability to hold hearings about alleged human rights violations in the city.

"I think we've been trying to figure out who we are for the past year," Marchetti said. "And everybody has a different idea of how that should look."

Most agree on the success of recent panels held by the commission, including those exploring racism encountered by Asian-Americans and black residents, and another that covered issues leading to the later-overturned conviction of the late city man Bernard Baran, who was gay, in the 1980s.

In an interview this month, Herzig said he also feels it's important to get the City Council involved in timely issues of human rights. He said some city councilors "really seem to have a hard time affirming human rights," noting reluctance from the council to stand by transgender rights ahead of a recent ballot question. Not all councilors supported a change from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day in the school calendar, Herzig said, and more recently there was pushback against a petition to train councilors in cultural competency and racial bias.

He said the way the council bristles at these kinds of issues makes it difficult to work with its members.

"I feel that we're not working in tandem with City Council," he said.

Herzig said it's important for the commission to take a moral stand in a time when feelings of xenophobia are intensifying around the world.

"If we keep pulling ourselves back from expressing an opinion, it's pointless," Herzig said.

City Councilor Helen Moon also feels that the City Council should be more ready to hold the line on human rights. Moon proposed the measure asking that councilors submit to cultural competency training, and was disappointed by resistance from those who felt it should be up to the individual councilor to decide whether the training was necessary.

"I'm a little disappointed that our council is hesitant to take positions on human rights issues," she said. "And I feel like it's getting convoluted with aspects of free speech."

Especially as the county grows more diverse, she said it's important to take a stand for minorities who feel targeted.

"These are real and ongoing issues happening right here in our community, and I think that representatives of our community need to start having that dialogue," she said.

Elected representatives have a duty to lead by example, she said.

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"Sometimes you have to take a strong position because it's the right thing to do," she said.

`The conscience of the city'

The rights commission spiraled into its state of existential crisis beginning in 2015, when a woman brought a human rights complaint to the group for review without realizing her complaint would be public. When her grievance was televised, she was outraged. Amid the controversy that followed, Herzig took control of the commission in January 2017.

He said he soon realized the body's complaint function was challenged in multiple ways. Complaint review had to happen in public because the commission is subject to Massachusetts' Open Meeting Law, he noted. Those regulations are "some of the strictest in the country," he said, "so that is a bit problematic."

He learned that the ordinance detailing commission duties — subpoena power, namely — reached beyond the body's legal authority. Plus, he said, the complaints that people brought forward were less than substantive. He said the few complaints the commission saw were best described as "city service issues."

"That's when I realized: What are we doing?" he said.

Last year, the commission drafted a new ordinance removing the complaint function, which the City Council approved last spring.

Despite the shift, Herzig said, "I would still want us to be the conscience of the city."

Marchetti said he struggles to strike the balance between taking a stand on human rights and respecting free speech, which he holds dear.

"I think one of the most basic human rights is freedom of speech and expression," he said. "It's hard to determine what is freedom of speech and expression, and when that freedom of speech and expression violates other people."

Marchetti said he'd like to see the commission focus on its educational duties, hosting forums around relevant human rights concerns in Berkshire County. He said he'd also like to see the commission keep the focus specifically on city issues, and not stray into national and global ones. And when human rights hit the ballot box, he thinks it's important the City Council is careful not to tell people how to vote.

That issue came up in September, with a proposal from the commission asking the council to affirm transgender residents' rights — a resolution that came just before Massachusetts voters decided on a ballot question on the subject.

The resolution ultimately passed through the City Council, but Marchetti had urged commissioners ahead of time to remove reference of the impending ballot question.

"I don't think it's the council's job to pass resolutions on votes," he said. "I think if you're telling people to vote a particular way on a question, then it becomes a slippery slope."

The council leader said he'd like to see the commission take more time to take a stand, lest the stance it takes taint its ability to educate the public. If people are debating the issue of whether transgender women should have a right to use the women's bathroom, for example, then he thinks the commission can host a discussion, infusing facts into it and debunking myths where appropriate.

If the commission already has taken a stand, Marchetti worries that could serve to shut down opposing voices.

"I think if you're going to debate an issue, then you have to allow all sides of an issue to speak," he said. "Even if you may not agree with it."

Marchetti said people often have different ideas about what constitutes a human right.

"I just think a conversation first would be beneficial," he said.

"I know that Drew and I are on completely opposite sides of the fence," Marchetti said of disagreements with Herzig. "I just think that we're overreaching. And I'm not saying that he's wrong; I just think that we're overreaching."

Herzig said he might have a different vision, but the goals are the same.

"Everybody has good intentions with this," he said. "We're just trying to find our way."

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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