Mayoral candidates express concerns over Carbondale Human Relations Commission

By Rana Schenke, News Editor

Carbondale mayoral candidates John “Mike” Henry and Nathan Colombo discussed the functions of the Human Relations Commission and its role in the community at a forum Thursday.

Carmen Suarez, a Carbondale community member, said the HRC’s mission has not been realized in the twenty years since it began. 

“[The vision is] to affect substantive change in how we relate with each other, be it through race, be it through sexual orientation, be it through religion, be it through whatever immigration and citizenship status,” Suarez said. “It was designed to be activist educational originally, and in my observations […] it really is not fulfilling that mission.”

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Suarez asked the candidates what their visions are for revitalizing the HRC, if they feel it needs to be revitalized.

“The Human Relations Commissions has been woefully dysfunctional for years,” Mike Henry said.

Henry said he intends to replace the chair of the Human Relations Commission, Jerrold Hennrich, immediately after the election.

Hennrich, who has served as the chair since 2014, said in an interview he thinks Henry’s characterization of the Human Relations Commission as “woefully dysfunctional” is incorrect.

“That kind of slaps all the people who have volunteered for the Human Relations Commission, dedicated their time and service to the community, right in the face,” Hennrich said. 

Hennrich said the HRC’s mission is to act as an advisory board to the city council, mayor and city manager and while the administration may not always get the answers they seek, does not believe the Commission is “woefully dysfunctional.”

Hennrich said the Commission’s main focus is building relationships in the community and he feels rhetoric like this is counterproductive.

“We’ve helped guide a lot of citizens in their struggles with actually communicating with the city; that’s our purpose and our function,” Hennrich said.

Hennrich is running for city council alongside four other candidates, incumbents Navreet Kang, Adam Loos and Tom Grant and challenger Lee Fronabarger. The five candidates are running for three seats.

Hennrich said if Henry wants to get rid of him from the HRC, Henry should vote for him for city council since a councilperson is not able to also serve on a board or commission in Carbondale.

Henry previously tried to remove Hennrich from his position in September after the HRC held a community roundtable to discuss proactive ways to attract students and businesses to Carbondale.

(See more: Carbondale mayor threatens firing of Human Relations Commission chair over community roundtable)

Henry was unable to remove Hennrich as chair because he was unable to get the necessary votes from city council and did not have a replacement chair in mind.

Hennrich said Henry also had not appointed new commissioners to the HRC until a month before the election, which meant the commission was operating at about half staff.

“His intent before he started thinking about the election […] was to eliminate the Human Relations Commission all together through attrition […] allowing people’s terms to expire and then not reappointing commissioners,” Hennrich said.

Hennrich said he had reached out to the mayor on multiple occasions regarding appointments, and even heard of other people who wanted to be on the commission but received no response from the mayor.

Regarding the four new appointees chosen by the mayor, Hennrich said things with the HRC have been going well.

“The great thing about the Human Relations Commission is that whenever people actually get on the board and serve, they understand what we’re doing,” Hennrich said.

At the forum, Colombo said he was concerned Michelle Snyder’s appointment to the Commission; she is married to Carbondale city attorney Jamie Snyder.

“It is not to say [she] is a bad person or unqualified,” Colombo said. “It is simply to say that the relationship between her and our city attorney and how that connects into the greater realm of city operations should concern all of us.”

Hennrich said there was some opposition to Snyder’s appointment but had nothing bad to say about her. 

“The people that serve on these boards and commissions are servants of our community and just because you happen to be married to someone else who might be in politics or be a part of the administration, that doesn’t preclude anyone from being a member of our commission,” Hennrich said. “I fully support every one of my commissioners.”

At Thursday’s forum, Henry also criticized the HRC’s involvement in local issues.

“[The Commission has] done virtually nothing in the past four to five years other than receive police reports and criticize the police department,” Henry said. “They weren’t there on the warming center, they haven’t had any hearings on race or LGBTQ issues; that’s what they are supposed to be doing.”

Hennrich said the mandate for the commission is broad, but it specifically requires the commission to collect some annual reports from the police department.

“In fact, we’re supposed to take that data, analyze it and then make recommendations to the mayor,” Hennrich said. “But he won’t hear anything that we have to say because he feels like we’re picking on the police department.”

Hennrich said the commission has not received any police reports since 2015.

“It’s also unclear as to what the Mayor was attempting to convey by saying that the Human Relations Commission “wasn’t there” for the warming center,” Hennrich said. “We most certainly supported the idea of having a warming center and I think that the City responded timely and appropriately by making sure the electricity was there and people didn’t freeze to death.”

Hennrich also said many of the discussions the HRC has deal directly with race, gender and sexual orientation.

He said the most recent of these took place at the commission’s last meeting and was regarding issues with city ordinances and licensing procedures and the impact these had concerning local business owner Miles Davis.

Davis held a concert at his business which included adults and minors but did not have the entertainment license required to hold the event.

Colombo said city manager Gary Williams gave Davis permission to host the concert without a license and instructed the police department not to do any enforcement on the event, but police shut down the event anyway.

“We were concerned that this was a race-related issue, so we took it to the Human Relations Commission,” Colombo said.

Colombo brought up this incident at the forum and said the Commission did not validate the concern, so he took it to city council.

“It is true though that the commission did not vote to take any action on […] furthering the issue with Miles Davis,” Hennrich said. “He did not have a license, but the way that he was treated was certainly improper, not by the commission so much as by the city.”

According to an article by the Southern Illinoisan, Hennrich suggested forming a subcommittee regarding the issue, but as it received no votes, the commission would continue to deal with the matter off the record.

“I talked to the city manager about this […] on about four separate occasions to see what kind of things we can do, but the ordinance, as it is written, does not seem to allow for the type of activities [Davis] wants to pursue,” Hennrich said. “But, at the same time, it seems as if we’re not applying the law equally to all people.”

Davis and Colombo, who was also present at the meeting, said the police turnout for larger, predominantly white events at The Varsity Center and other venues has been noticeably lower than that for Davis’ relatively small concerts, according to a January article in the Southern Illinoisan. 

Commissioner Dora Weaver asked Davis whether he was being racially targeted and Davis said he thought it could be that, but wasn’t entirely sure. He mostly just wanted the commission to hear his complaints and look further into this possibility.

Hennrich said the commission can’t take an issue to city council without first looking into it and talking about solutions to it.

“The way that the Human Relations Commission is treated by the administration causes us to be diligent with exercising every possible argument the city could have against someone to try and figure out […] what’s the real issue here,” Hennrich said.

Hennrich said issues like this are why he’s running for city council.

“We have such over-broad and restrictive ordinances that it’s possible for the city to shut you down at just about every junction, especially for a guy that’s trying to start up a small business,” Hennrich said. “What we need to do is change the ordinance to allow for businesses like Miles’ to succeed.”

Hennrich said the way the license law was applied in this case was inequitable. He used Longbranch Cafe and City Hall itself as examples of places where entertainment is or can be provided and there is no age restriction, but the average person can’t do the same.

“It’s completely counterintuitive and it shows a systemic problem within the way that our ordinances are written that has to be addressed,” Hennrich said.

Hennrich said the HRC is not an investigatory body, but can help guide people to the appropriate agency to redress grievances and make recommendations to the city council and manager.  

“Any person who suffers from discrimination whether in housing, employment, interactions with the city or application of city ordinance is encouraged to attend a meeting,” Hennrich said.

The Human Relations Commission meets the first Monday of every month at 5:00 p.m. at the Carbondale Civic Center. 

Carbondale will choose its next mayor and city council members on Tuesday, April 2. 

News Editor Rana Schenke can be reached at [email protected].

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