A commission designed to ensure that no Gloucester resident will have his or her civil rights "constrained, reduced, ignored or violated" is on its way back into the city's book of ordinances.

Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken is seeking to reactivate Gloucester's Human Rights Commission, which had a run in the 1990s, then faded into oblivion more than a decade ago.

Guidelines for the new version of the commission call for a volunteer advisory board of seven members that could propose potential ordinance and other changes to the mayor. They are are being drawn up by Human Resources Director Donna Leete, and now sit before two City Council subcommittees before going forward.

The commission, as crafted, would serve as an avenue for all residents to address any variety of concerns — notably the lack of disability access or opportunities to utilize city programs and facilities. Leete said, while not specified, it could also be used to address other forms of civil injustice any resident might face.

"It is not meant to be a substitute for other statutes, or serve as a means of appeals," Leete said when asked if residents could challenge, for example, police actions through the Human Rights Commission. "But, when you read the ordinance, it is rather broad."

The ordinance, she said, is geared more toward residents who may need for a disability parking space or other accommodations in certain parts of the city. In fact, it was generated after an earlier effort to create a disabilities commission last year.

"Our thought was to do something like this covering everybody first," she said. "This should cover people with disabilities as it is before we break it down. But the intent is to protect everyone's rights. That's the goal."

Romeo Theken said the project — essentially reviving a commission created in 1994 that faded into oblivion more than a decade ago — has been in the works for months.

"We (were) working on it all summer," the mayor said. "We want to make sure that it's correct and make sure we get everything. It's not an easy task."

Romeo Theken said that, while other communities have a part-time or full-time manager to keep tabs on local civil rights issues, Gloucester will not be adding personnel to field complaints.

"We don't have the resources," she said.

Leete said records show the initial Human Rights Commission was launched in 1994, though no one asked over the last few days can remember when exactly it fell off the radar screen.

"My memory is that it was a difficult board for which to find or recruit a full roster of members, and that it never got the full traction that had been desired," said Bruce Tobey, who served as mayor the year before and then six years after the commission was established.

Specific guidelines 

Under the ordinance crafted by Leete, the new, seven-member commission would be appointed by the mayor and "provide a public forum in which citizens may identify specific barriers that may prevent them from taking advantage of city programs, policies and facilities."

It would also "support and assist all city departments, including the School Department ... in their efforts to celebrate the diversity of the city," and "promote tolerance and comply with appropriate local, commonwealth and federal laws".

Also, it would "assist persons in the city who believe that their human or civil rights ... have been violated in the city, by providing voluntary mediation for all parties concerned and informing such people of the local, commonwealth and federal agencies available to address their grievances."

The draft calls for each of the seven commissioners to serve a term of three years, though the first members chosen would serve staggered terms of one, two and three years to allow the mayor the chance to appoint succeeding members to three-year terms on a staggered basis.

Leete noted that Romeo Theken and the city have already taken steps to protect residents' civil rights and the city's diversity through the City Council's so-called "civility resolution," a mayoral-backed training program targeting any discrimination or harassment in the workplace and other measures.

The city has also regularly flown the rainbow flag, commonly known as the gay pride flag, on City Hall grounds in recent years, hosted rallies for groups fighting violence and other abuse toward women, and played host to a gay wedding in City Hall's Kyrouz Auditorium last October. 

"The city of Gloucester has a proud history of protecting the rights of persons with disabilities in our community," Leete said. "However, after much research, we have concluded that we must expand our mission to guarantee equal rights for all.

"The Human Rights Commission will advance this initiative throughout the city," Leete said, "to ensure that all city residents are treated fairly and equally without discrimination, intolerance or prejudice."

Ray Lamont can be reached at 978-675-2705, or rlamont@gloucestertimes.com.

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