News: Getting Along

Set up to build peace, human relations agency always under scrutiny

Dec 1, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Graham Lienhart

Last year the CHRC held a unity rally after neo-Nazis said they were coming.

What started in 1943 as the Mayor's Friendly Relations Commission seemed a simple enough concept with a noble if difficult mission: Have an independent organization work to promote racial harmony and help Cincinnati residents, both black and white, cope with the urban pressures being amplified by World War II that centered around such issues as housing and employment.

The commission would serve as an advisory panel to the mayor and city council, suggesting ways to promote greater tolerance.

As Cincinnati and the nation entered the tumultuous 1960s, though, city council decided to sharpen the organization's role. Renamed the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission (CHRC) in 1965, the group became a trouble-shooting agency designed to smooth the rougher edges of the Civil Rights movement and deal with smoldering race relations problems.

Expressing high hopes for the CHRC, city officials hired David McPheeter, a former Tuskegee Airman and event planner for New York Mayor John Lindsay, to serve as its first director. Just a year after McPheeter's hiring, fiery riots rocked several Cincinnati neighborhoods, and the agency struggled to reduce tensions and prevent more social unrest.

Nowadays the agency tracks hate crimes and tries to ease tensions among different racial, cultural and religious groups. Additionally, the CHRC provides "community monitors" or street workers during large events such as festivals and tries to mediate individual complaints.

Police partners

Like the racial climate in America, the CHRC has experienced its share of successes and setbacks over the years.

For the past decade the CHRC has been under fire from city officials on both the right and left of the political spectrum.

Some city council members have wanted to eliminate the agency and place its services up for competitive bidding by private companies, while other officials wanted to keep the CHRC but change its mission.

With little agreement among elected officials, the agency has seen its budget and staff reduced in recent years. In a proposed municipal budget update for 2008 released earlier this month, City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. recommends cutting $65,000 from the CHRC's budget, leaving the agency with $300,000 for the year. Council will make a decision in December.

"It just always seems to be under the microscope for some reason," says Vice Mayor David Crowley, who describes himself as a CHRC supporter. "That program seems to get more scrutiny than others."

The scrutiny has seen the CHRC go from a $416,000 annual budget just a few years ago to $365,000. During the same period the agency's staff went from seven full-time employees to three.

To make up some of the funding difference, the CHRC has sought grants through the Cincinnati Empowerment Corp. and the federal government, according to the Rev. Will Thomas, the agency's board president.

"We should be able to continue doing all that we do with the additional money," Thomas says.

As part of the recent changes, city council told the CHRC to enter into a deal with the Police Community Partnering Center for its street monitor program. Under the arrangement, the program was expanded to 17 full-time street monitors under a new anti-crime program, the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence. The contract will be renegotiated in March, and it's unclear if the CHRC will keep its involvement or transfer it entirely to the center.

"True enough, they've been our bread and butter and kept the agency running, but CHRC is more than just the street workers," Thomas says. "I think we haven't done a good enough job telling our story over the years about what all we do."

Some of those other duties include mediation services and conducting a study to recommend improvements to the city's Equal Employment Opportunity Program.

Council's directive caps a rocky recent history of interacting with CHRC.

In 1998 seven of the CHRC's 15 board members resigned in protest after a proposal by three city officials to radically alter its mission. Then-council members Minette Cooper, Dwight Tillery and Charlie Winburn wanted the agency to become responsible for enforcing and monitoring the city's minority and female-business set-aside programs.

The proposal ultimately failed, but the CHRC dwindled to six board members and has seen its funding shrink in the intervening years. Meanwhile a court ruling declared the set-aside programs unconstitutional, and they were dropped.

Calming the streets
When city council cut the agency's funding by $100,000 in 1999, it allocated $10,000 for a consultant's study. Although the study questioned the agency's effectiveness, it noted that the CHRC hadn't received enough support from city council. As a result, council decided in 2000 to form a special panel to review the consultant's findings and recommend a clearer direction for the agency.

By the time the protracted process was over in spring 2001 — after two studies and $10,000 in consultant fees — the only significant change approved allowed the mayor to appoint the CHRC's board members.

Just weeks later events unfolded that convinced then-Mayor Charlie Luken of the CHRC's worth. When scattered rioting erupted on Cincinnati's streets in April 2001 following the police shooting death of an unarmed black man during a foot chase in Over-the-Rhine, the agency's community monitors were praised for their efforts at keeping the violence from getting worse.

The respite was short-lived.

In 2004 then-Vice Mayor Alicia Reece introduced a proposal to take $100,000 from the agency's budget and reallocate it for initiatives to reduce black-on-black violence in inner-city neighborhoods. Reece's proposal was panned by some council members as short on details and ultimately was defeated.

"In part, I think it was a leadership issue," Crowley says. "After (former CHRC executive director) Cecil (Thomas) left, they went awhile without a director and there were some vacancies on the board. I'm not sure it has a natural constituency, so when it's attacked, there's no one ready to jump up and defend it."

More recently, the CHRC has tried to regroup. The Rev. Will Thomas, who became board president in 2002, was originally supposed to stay for just two years but only will step down in January. With a degree in business administration and a background as a trainer for the boards of nonprofit organizations, he tried to streamline the CHRC's operations.

Among Thomas' accomplishments, he filled board vacancies — some with accountants to help watch the agency's books more closely — and organized a Human Relations Summit among different groups that was held this month at the Drake Center.

"The CHRC will weather this storm and move on," Thomas says. "As we evolve, I really see us getting additional funding as we partner more with the community and the corporate sector." ©