By Taylor Sisk
All members of Chatham Countyâ€™s voluntary human relations commission resigned in protest Monday night, with Chair Norman Clark telling the board of county commissioners, â€œWe refuse to participate in an ineffectual commission and perpetuate the myth that the majority on this board cares about the welfare of minorities in our community.â€
The resignations came at the conclusion of a presentation Clark made to the board at its regular Monday night meeting and were precipitated by the commissionersâ€™ decision in January to eliminate the position of director of the Office of Human Relations, held by Esther Coleman. Colemanâ€™s was the only paid county human relations position.
In his presentation, Clark said the role of a volunteer commission is to provide direction and make recommendations, but that, â€œA volunteer commission does not possess the resources, the knowledge, the time or the authority to address residentsâ€™ complaints or act on those complaints.â€
Clark described the shift in demographics that has occurred in Chatham County throughout the past 30 years or so with the arrival of a considerable number of immigrants, mostly from Latin American countries, and the countyâ€™s efforts to address this shift.
In April 2000, the board of commissioners voted to establish the Chatham County Commission on Human Relations. Each member of the board made two appointments to the committee and two at-large appointments were made by the full board. The volunteer commission operated without staff from 2000 to 2008.
In May 2007, the commissioners approved the position of director of the Office of Human Relations, and Coleman was subsequently hired. Among her responsibilities were to assist in the investigation of discrimination claims and promote the employment of qualified individuals regardless of race, gender, religion, disability, age, sexual orientation or economic background.
Clark recounted several of the human relations commissionâ€™s initiatives, undertaken in cooperation with county officials and the community, including addressing the educational achievement gap between whites and students of color; a lack of recreational facilities for young people; and the need for more minority representation in law enforcement, the schools and local government.
Clark cited advances made in the schools, with Coleman playing a leadership role in the Raising Achievement/Closing the Gap Task Force and in establishing the Student Achievement Awards for minority students.
â€œWe are here today to express our strong disapproval and our disappointment that Chatham County, home to 45 percent minority children in our school system, and home to 30 percent people of color in its general population, does not see fit to invest one-tenth of 1 percent of its budget on a position that would [help] minorities overcome barriers and eliminate discriminatory practices in our community,â€ Clark said.
He said that the director had been â€œwell-poised to secure outside sources of fundingâ€ for the office, and urged the commission to reinstate the position.
By Taylor Sisk