The Kent Pilot supports the creation of a Human Rights Commission for Chestertown. So does the public. The original concerns of “why do we need it” have been replaced by “how will it be composed.”

The HRC is based on a model used in other local Maryland jurisdictions. It has both symbolic and practical values. The goal is to create a confidential, neutral body empowered to mediate and resolve allegations of discrimination in employment, housing, by town agencies and by businesses. The Commission will issue an annual report on racial justice and equity. And the Commission will be composed of “at least fifty percent People of Color.”

At the October 26 Council hearing via Zoom, discussion focussed on the mechanics of the process to ensure confidentiality and that the HRC operates to facilitate reconciliation. For the HRC to have any credibility, it will have to operate in confidence and not as a tool for public defamation.

Kent County’s year of racial reform and reconciliation began last spring. Ward 3 Chestertown Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver approached the Kent County Commissioners in March to ask that they adopt an anti-slavery proclamation. In April, the County Commissioners unanimously proclaimed April as “Anti-Slavery Month” for posterity.

The events following the murder of George Floyd in May led to the 100 Days of Action for Racial Justice that included peaceful public protests for police reform — and subsequent talks resulted in adoption of the duty to intervene rule. As a matter of public policy, Chestertown, Rock Hall and Kent County law enforcement officers have an affirmative obligation to intervene when other officers are using excessive force in the line of duty.

Chestertown’s contribution to Kent County’s year of racial justice reform and reconciliation is still undecided. At best, it has been a struggle for some Council members.

A recent concern of Ward 2 Councilman Tom Herz is that the HRC’s racial composition could possibly violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Courts apply the strict scrutiny test when determining if local governments violate the Constitution when adopting race-conscious remedies for discrimination. There must be evidence of a compelling governmental interest for racial remediation and the remedy is narrowly tailored.

The reader can decide. The Council could add a finding of facts to the preamble of the HRC ordinance that there exists evidence of significant racial discrimination that, even with race-neutral efforts, has not abated.

The effects of discrimination are seen today in education, economics and political participation. As evidence, you can point to the history of enslavement and segregation under Jim Crow – separate white and black worlds that included separate entrances for blacks, purposely segregated suburban neighborhoods and the late arrival of integrated schools.

One can only conclude that discrimination continues despite our best efforts demonstrated by disparities in education, economic and political participation. The composition requirement is narrowly tailored to create the opportunity for more diverse input on solutions to problems.

The Council should move forward with the Human Rights Commission.

The Kent Pilot


Feature image: Paul Schreiber FLICKR