MOORHEAD - Trouble attracting and keeping members may force the City Council to scrap the city's beleaguered Human Rights Commission.
The commission, which has a mission of fighting discrimination, was founded in 1989 by the council. Only four of its 11 seats are now filled.
Human rights commissions made up of unpaid community members are common in cities across the country. Fargo's Human Relations Commission has nine members.
Heidi Uecker, a former member of the Moorhead Human Rights Commission, quit last year after business owner Daniel Omane claimed the city denied him a tobacco license because he is a black man from Ghana.
"I felt when this complaint came to light, that the Human Rights Commission didn't have the necessary tools to deal with the situation adequately, and I didn't feel that that was going to be rectified soon," Uecker said in an interview last spring, when Omane filed his complaint.
The city said it denied the license because Omane's hookah shop attracted unruly crowds late at night.
Human Rights Commission member Nate Aalgaard said the current discussion about improving the commission has nothing to do with the Omane case. He said the problem is a lack of committed members.
"I think it should be smaller. It should be more focused," he said. "Make it more of an educational type of organization rather than listening to complaints because we really don't have any enforcement powers."
At a City Council meeting this week, city staff offered these recommendations for improving the commission:
• Remove the commission's ability to hear and try to resolve allegations of discrimination; the matter would be referred directly to the state Department of Human Rights.
• Reduce membership from 11 people to seven.
• Offer commission members training on open meetings law.
• Specify four annual activities for the commission to lead.
• Remove a requirement that the commission represent people from various protected classes, or groups that cannot be targeted for discrimination.
Mayor Del Rae Williams, who served on the Human Rights Commission in the past, said city staff researched the issue at her request.
"The research stemmed from a real frustration that everyone had with not having an active Human Rights Commission," Lisa Bode, the city's community development manager, told council members Tuesday. "So we were really wondering about the relevance of the commission. It's a Human Rights Commission. You don't want to just say, 'We don't need it anymore.' "
But Councilman Mike Hulett suggested scrapping the commission. "I really find it curious that this is a city function," he said.
City Manager Michael Redlinger said it is up to council members to decide if they want to disband - or in his words, "sunset" - the commission. Hulett said the issue should be discussed at the council's workshop session March 7.
Williams said she does not want to see the commission ended because it can remain relevant.
"I think it's mostly in education, advising," she said. "There's a role they can play."