Local News

Chatham human relations panel resigns in protest

Posted July 19, 2011 11:46 a.m. EDT
Updated July 20, 2011 3:48 p.m. EDT

— All eight members of the Chatham County Human Relations Commission resigned Tuesday to protest moves by the county Board of Commissioners that they see as undercutting their work.

Commissioners in January eliminated the full-time employee who managed the Human Relations Commission's efforts as part of budget cuts. Last month, the board reversed its stance toward an immigration enforcement program known as 287(G).

"We refuse to participate in an ineffectual commission and perpetuate the myth that this Board (of Commissioners) cares about the welfare of minorities," Norman Clark, former chairman of the Human Relations Commission, said in a statement.

Brian Bock, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, said Wednesday that he was surprised by the move.

"The vision (for local race relations) hasn't changed from the last board to this board," Bock said.

Clark said the human relations budget represented 0.1 percent of Chatham County's annual budget, and the county could have spared the office in its cuts.

"A volunteer commission does not possess the resources, time, know-how or authority to address residents' discrimination complaints," he said. "The (commission's) goals cannot be meaningfully accomplished without support from the county and a dedicated and knowledgeable staff person."

Bock said the director's salary was $80,000 a year. "By the time you put in benefits, you are speaking about $100,000 for one advisory committee," he said.

The county has one of the fastest-growing Hispanic populations in the state. The number of Hispanics in the county has increased about 20-fold in the past two decades, and the group now accounts for about 13 percent of the local population.

Black people account for another 13 percent of the county population, and close to half of the students in the Chatham County Schools system are minority.

The county created the Human Relations Commission in 2000 to deal with growing population diversity. It was among 13 North Carolina cities and counties that had a paid staff person to deal with equality issues.

"We were trying to bring the whole county together," Clark told WRAL News.

Tensions increased when the Board of Commissioners rescinded a resolution passed by the previous board that said county law enforcement wouldn't work with a federal program that could eventually deport illegal immigrants. The Human Relations Commission had recommended the initial resolution.

"With the direction of the new board, we didn't feel it would be in our best interest to take steps backwards," Clark said.

Commissioners will start searching for 12 new Human Relations Commission members, Bock said. Four of the panel's seats had been vacant before Tuesday.