Chestertown Ward 3 Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver withdrew his ordinance to create a Human Rights Commission during Monday’s Town Council meeting.
He said the original purpose of the bill had been revised to a point where it was unrecognizable from its original intent to combat racism and discrimination against people of color.
“The Human Rights Commission ordinance has gotten so far away from what it was intended to do,” he said.
The vote to withdraw the ordinance was 3-1 with Ward 2 Councilman Tom Herz voting against. Mayor Chris Cerino, Tolliver and Ward 1 Councilman David Foster voted in favor and Ward 4 Councilwoman Meghan Efland abstained.
Most of the revisions that followed the introduction of the ordinance on Oct. 5 were heavily lobbied for by Herz, who removed a requirement that the commission be staffed by a majority of people of color. Herz also edited out the commission’s ability to provide mediation in disputes over discrimination.
Many of Herz detractors in the community believed he was trying to create an ‘all lives matter’ document that glossed over recognition and remedies specifically for people of color that have historically endured discrimination and racism to a far greater extent than other groups.
Cerino said he received a “slew of emails” prior to the meeting to withdraw the ordinance and felt disappointed. He said he thought the council had reached an agreement.
“I thought we had sort of reached an accord and we were all on the same page up until just ten minutes before we started this meeting,” he said. “I’m kind of at a loss; this has really been a big surprise.”
Tolliver responded that the ordinance had undergone too many changes and that he no longer felt comfortable sponsoring it.
“It morphed into a document that really had no teeth and substance, and after looking at it a really long time I felt like it needed to be pulled off the table,” Tolliver said.
Ward 1 Councilman David Foster said he believed that council had created an ordinance that was similar to other human rights commissions throughout the state and that he was confused by Tolliver’s motion to remove the ordinance from consideration.
“It seemed like our final product was quite similar to those,” he said. “Now to be told that it’s not what we wanted when it followed those models is a bit of a puzzlement to me. I am disappointed and sorry that it didn’t appear to meet the needs that [Tolliver] hoped for.”
Local resident, Paula Reeder, called for the council to recognize color in supporting its pledge to Unite Against Racism and create more affordable housing on town owned property, recruit minority owned businesses and sit people of color on the Board of Directors of Main Street Chestertown. (see Reeder’s comments submitted into the record at Monday’s meeting)
Cerino said he had reservations about the ordinance from the beginning and that residents in Chestertown have other recourse to deal with racial discrimination through the local chapter of the NAACP, the ACLU and the Maryland Human Rights Commission.
“I was more concerned like we’re duplicating services and I’m not convinced that in a town of our size we have the resources and the admin’ to really do this professionally,” he said. He said the town could wind up in legal jeopardy for mishandling claims of discrimination.