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.