Establishing Chestertown Human Rights Commission Draws Concerns From Some White Residents

During a public hearing on Monday, some members of Chestertown’s white community expressed reservations about an ordinance proposed by Ward 3 Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver to establish the Chestertown’s Human Rights Commission.

Andy Scott of Ward 2, who is white, said a human rights commission at the county level would better serve the wider black community in Kent because only 1,000 of the county’s 3,000 black residents live in Chestertown. 

“I have some serious reservations about how this proposed commission is being set up.” Scott said at a virtual public hearing of the Town Council on Oct. 26. “Creating the commission at the town level will not serve the interests of blacks living elsewhere in the county.”

Based on his own Internet research, Scott said that Chestertown was essentially too small to have a human rights commission. He said while 11 of Maryland’s 23 counties have Human rights commissions, only four cities had their own. He said Baltimore, Rockville, Annapolis and Cumberland are ranked much higher in population.

“Chestertown would be the smallest by far,” he said. “There’s simply no other town of our size in the state that has its own commission.”

He mentioned that discrimination claims the commission would hear would mostly pertain to public safety and schools, which are run by the county.

“Positioning this commission at the county level would allow that commission to intervene directly with agencies that are part of the county government,” he said. 

Scott said that the town has already apologized for slavery and that “the vast majority of enslaved persons labored on the plantations out in the county, not in the town” and is why the county needs to “step up” and restore the commission the county had from 2003 to 2011. 

“The county is the right place to have this commission,” he said. “At that level it could represent the interests of many more people [and] it could draw on a wider pool of volunteers to serve on the commission.”

He said a commission at the county level could cover more forms of discrimination “than just racial discrimination.”

Jenn Baker, owner of Chester River Wine & Cheese Co. and resident of Ward 2, who is also white, echoed Scott, but added she was “nervous and uncomfortable” about a commission naming individuals and businesses in complaints about discrimination.”

“I’m a little concerned about the privacy aspect of the commission’s work and how that privacy will be maintained,” she said. “If there is a concern raised or a complaint raised my concern is that we are putting a public committee of non-trained mediators in the position of adjudicating that within the community…I as a business owner want to better understand, and need to better understand how these processes will play out [and] how privacy will be maintained.”

She expressed concern how complaints against a business would play out on social media and in the press.

“We’ve seen the Dan Menefee Pilot articles, hate to call him out,” she said. “I’ll just make it about me for a second, if my business is listed on the agenda as a business where a complaint came through, does that mean it’s going to appear in like the local paper before it’s even discussed with me or the impacted party?”

“I don’t fear being asked to come to the table and talk about something that may have happened in my business,” she continued. “What I’m concerned about is how that process will play out publicly in a way that may or may not detrimentally impact a small private business.”

She said she was also unsure how mediation would work in a “legal sense” where compensation could be awarded to settle an issue or an employee would need to be terminated. 

Local resident Barbara Jorgenson, an attorney, tried to allay the concerns of Baker and Scott affirming that their concerns would be addressed during the formation of the commission.

In the short video below Jorgenson discusses the need for the commission and its responsibilities.

She said the text of the proposed ordinance addressed concerns about privacy.

“The very valid privacy concerns…can be addressed and will be addressed as this goes forward,” she said. 

She said the commission would be allowed to accept complaints and refer them to the “appropriate authorities” and proceed with mediation, if the parties agreed to it, or refer complaints to a local mediation group. She also reiterated that there’s nothing suggested in the ordinance that would empower the commission to level fines on anyone.

Responding to Scott on the size of Chestertown’s black community, Jorgenson said the commission would tap resources of larger public and private groups “whether they are local, regional or national.”

“This is in clear recognition that we are a small town,” she said. “Even though there’s only 1,000 [black] people in Chestertown, it’s 1,000 people that are our citizens [and] it’s 1,000 people that are represented by this council and it’s 1,000 people that deserve to have their problems heard.”

Several people sent letters in support and against the Commission who did not actually live in town, but who are connected to the community. 

Ward 1 Councilwoman Megan Efland read an impassioned letter from Social Action Committee for Racial Justice Co-Chair Arlene Lee in support of the Commission, but Mayor Chris Cerino discredited Lee, along with two other letters from area residents, because the authors did not live within town limits.

“So again, technically an out-of-towner in terms of voting and property taxes and what not,” Cerino said after Ward 2 Councilman Tom Herz said Lee lives in Crest View, just beyond the town limits.

4 comments

  1. As a tax paying Chestertown property owner, I support the establishment of the proposed Human Rights Commission 100%. The relative number of people of color whose interests will be served by the Commission is immaterial. As a group they deserve this avenue for communicating and resolving issues of discrimination and racism. Further, it should be noted that people of color are not the only residents who will have the benefit of Comission services. Such residents include ANYONE who believes they have been discrimated against regardless of their color or race.

    As Barbara Jorgenson noted, privacy issues and concerns of local businesses can – and should – be appropriately vetted and addressed in the as yet to be completed definition and codification of Commission operating policies and procedures . It’s time to do the right thing and put this Commission to work for the beneift of our community at large.

  2. I support having a human rights commission in Chestertown and possibly Kent County to ensure the human and civil rights of its citizens as well as those that visit here. Our civil and human rights history is known; in part it represents a shameful stain on our distant and not so distant past as well as an irreparable tragedy to those victimized by it. It is possible and therefore hopeful that Chestertown and its County will begin to institute safeguards for all its citizens so that they will be free of bigotry, discrimination and any sign of exclusion.
    Further inquiries, which will take time, may be helpful in order to know the steps and results of previous attempts to establish and safeguard above and the pluses and minuses of a town v. county commission.
    Of course, many wish to begin a working process ASAP which would aspire to change following the symbolic beginning of change as illustrated by the street murals. Nothing is too soon. Much/all has already been TOO LATE. This is surely mourned and always will be.
    One would hope for the coming together of good, fair, respectful minds and hearts to reach these goals.

  3. I am concerned about the large influence and role our local “home grown community activists” will have in this. Their combined lack of professionalism is going to be a large asterisk on the end of this project, and is not suitable to dictate these types of issues in local businesses. Candidates need sufficient vetting, as well as business experience, and some proper mitigation and communication training. This cannot be structured and run in conjunction with the other group style initiatives around town. New faces, and new names need to be considered. The same people doing the same thing will only yield the same results.

    Terry

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *