Council Approves Human Rights Commission Ordinance After Debating Role of New Board

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The City Council approved the ordinance creating a Human Rights Commission after debating whether board will hear complaints and have a role in resolving disputes.

The Human Rights Commission was created as part of the changes to Watertown’s City Charter in 2021. The ordinance was drafted by the Council’s Committee on Rules & Ordinances with input from residents.

Resident Rita Colafella said that the creation of the Human Rights Commission is timely.

“There is strong support for the creation of the commission. It is very timely, it was very timely 20 years ago, but given the rise of hate crimes across the country and in Massachusetts and the recent hate crime that took place in St. Stephen’s (Church) in Watertown, this is very valuable.”

City Attorney Mark Reich raised a concern about one section of the Human Rights Commission Ordinance concerning the duties of the commission. He recommended removing a section that spells out that the Commission’s charges and responsibilities, which says the Commission will:

“Serve as a resources for residents, employees, those doing business with or in the city, or visitors to make a report about concerns, complaints, or questions about discrimination or unequal treatment of individuals within the City of Watertown, to provide support and information to victims and witnesses, and to city officials who may investigate such reports, concerns, complaints or questions. The Commission shall develop procedures for accepting and managing complaints, and for protecting the reputation of all parties involved as appropriate and legally required. The Commission may provide resources, referrals and support to any person with a complaint of discrimination. Where all parties agree, the Commission may arrange for mediation of the incidents.”

Reich said that if the Human Rights Commission (HRC) takes and manages complaints, they may be getting into areas that would be better handled by collective bargaining for City employees, employee rights for workers in private businesses, or by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD). He added that he has concerns about issues of privacy, and that the Commissioners may not be trained to take complaints, and the person making the complaint may harm their legal rights.

“I want to make sure that we don’t put into place a situation where (people) come to the HRC, avoiding human resources, and run afoul of collective bargaining agreements or some grievance process, and possibly hurt themselves as part of the (HRC) complaint process.”

Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli asked whether taking out the last three sentences, and just keeping the first one would resolve the concerns. Reich said he still would have concerns, and that he believed other parts of the ordinances allowed the Commission to provide resources to people.

Councilor Nicole Gardner said that while complaints might get resolved by the human resources department of the City or a business, or by MCAD, the Human Rights Commission could be the first place to go.

“In that case the HRC plays the very important role of listening and then saying here are the resources and places to go to pursue them,” Gardner said. “I hear you, here’s where you go.”

She added that the ordinance was drafted at a time when the City of Watertown had a Personnel Department, not a Human Resources Department. The City now has a HR Department where people can make complaints and get information about disputes. Council President Mark Sideris noted that while the City has changed, the Human Rights Commission will also be dealing with people who do not work for the City.

Councilor John Gannon, who has been a city attorney in Watertown and other communities, said that he has seen human rights commissions in other communities have the ability to conduct investigations and have the power to issue subpoenas.

“In ours, I wanted to avoid such a scenario,” Gannon said.

By taking out that part of the ordinance, Councilor Caroline Bays said, she believes it would remove a major role of the Human Rights Commission.

“This is the heart of the whole document,” Bays said. “I can see taking out a few things, but I feel like if we take that out we are taking out the heart of the document.”

While she said she does not like editing a document during a Council meeting, Bays asked if a sentence could be added that says the Commission will not adjudicate disputes, but it could hear complaints.

Councilor Lisa Feltner made some suggestions for ways to edit the section by removing the language about making a report and bringing complaints and questions to the Commission, but no amendment was proposed.

Councilor Tony Palomba said that he also believes that taking the section out would remove a “pretty central part of the Human Rights Commission” and it would remove an important service the Commission would provide. He suggested that the entire document be passed, and the Council can revisit the ordinance after seeing how it operates.

“I was in a meeting (Monday) night, a 3.5 hour meeting, where we talked about the snow removal ordinance. We all decided let’s get it going. It’s the first time out, there will be mistakes and we’ll address them, therefore let’s address it after one year,” Palomba said. “I really think we need to move forward with this. If there are questions about how the Commission operates then we will look at it again. They have to give an annual report to the Council. There will be questions and concerns they have and will bring them up.”

After some more discussion, Palomba made a call to question, which asked for the debate to end and for the Council to vote. The Human Rights Commission ordinance was passed by a vote of 8-1, with Sideris voting no. He added, “I have some concerns.”

62 thoughts on “Council Approves Human Rights Commission Ordinance After Debating Role of New Board

  1. This is very scary! We should be promoting values in the home. Settling issues with your neighbors shouldn’t be a “Human Rights “ issue. It should be a matter between neighbors. Watertown is a wonderful place where the overwhelming population are loving folks. Please don’t go down this road!
    Cheers to Mr. Sideris ! We should all have concerns. Pretty soon everyone will be afraid to comment.

  2. Thank you, Mr. Sideris.

    Looking forward to reading the HRC Action Plan – and its Annual Report and Meetings Minutes thereafter.

    Interestingly: “Where all parties agree, the Commission may arrange for mediation of the incidents.” Conversely, nothing will be achieved. Business owners, landlords, City employees take notice.

  3. And yet there are people in this town who put up hateful signs like the one at St Stephen’s or swastikas in other areas, as if genocides were not enough. There are people who make derogatory remarks about symbols representing the LGBT plus community as if there rights to participate in the whole of human experiences is somehow wrong. And then there are the “jokes” that people of color hear at their expense at what are supposed to be welcoming events. You cannot negotiate with individuals who despise the very existence of others or think of others as less than. This a community problem and it is for the community to solve.

    It would be really great if people were taught “live and let live” or be inclusive, but so many are not being taught that. And if there is a slippery slope that slope was made long ago when laws were enacted to exclude people or thwart there abilities to thrive in impactful ways.

    Before we get into the old trope of every group had it hard, let’s be honest and admit hard is a relative determination. I know Italian Americans were interned in US camps during WWII and that many were lynched because of the color of their skin or religion. But we don’t lynch Italian Americans anymore or put their children in cages. We still do that to other groups, and that sends a message sends a message that it is ok. It’s not ok. Never was. Never will be.

  4. Having watched the Council meeting, as the City Attorney was talking about the review they did on the HRC, it was pretty easy to see after how many times he kept reiterating again about where this language was going,,, Lawsuits! Due to the fact of your going into people, places or things that are not part of your control. The Manager got it, the Council President got and I’m sure a lot of tax payers did also. The City has an Attorney for a reason, to look out for the best interests of Watertown period. When it gets said, let’s get it going anyways and see where it goes, is not sound judgement at all, by the way the same as the snow shoveling rule and it’s fines, that took 3 1/2 hours, let’s get that going as well and see where it goes. One will not have to wait for the review or reviews, we all know from the past practices of what does not change.

    • How this all plays out depends on the qualifications and wisdom of those on the Commission. If we get the best possible members, it can be a force for good.

  5. I prefer brevity over demagoguery. So, I will be brief.

    The HRC shall produce credible evidence of presumed or assumed violations in Watertown to justify its existence.

    • Not necessarily. As I said above, it depends on the quality of the Commission members.

      I also will remind that even wonderful communities have skeletons in their closets.

      • Then get competent members. It will be apparent how this goes after we get a chance to read the HRC Action Plan.

        Please share what skeletons exist in our City. Samples, please.

        • Well. . .how about the fact that the Police Chief was engaged in inappropriate behavior with someone under his command? Just for starters. . .

          • That’s old news now and I doubt it’s something the HRC would review.. What else in respect to discrimination/human rights violations when it comes to race, gender, etc.? Does the HRC have a priority list to get to work right away? Really?

          • It seems that’s the only episode you can bring about. At least, another write here brought four (OMG!) instances starting in 2009. The horror…It’s time to benchmark.

        • Actually it is current, as it is currently costing the City a lot of money. And it, along with a few other incidents, may very well point to problems with how women are treated in public service.

          If you want samples, talk to some minority residents of Watertown.

          I personally have witnessed quite a number of quotidian incidents of bias since moving here 15 years ago. I suspect there are some systemic manifestations of the same.

          Most Watertowners are welcoming. But a few are not and I have met them. Those folks should not be allowed to spoil the barrel.

          An example of something the HRC might address would be the hate message found at the Armenian church. They might chose to address it in a positive way by mobilizing the support of the greater community.

          There is no fault in examining one’s house. It’s a healthy exercise. Unless, of course, one has issues to hide.

          • I understand the Watertown PD may have identified the Armenian Church perpetrator and looking for him. Sorry, the HRC may have to come up with something else to keep busy.

            I guess you have no specific samples. I talk to minorities all the time in Watertown. I think they live in the real world, so they have nothing to complain about.

            Systemic, implicit bias, perpetual lack of DEIB, etc. What a nightmare.

            Let the HRC record prove that it is a solution searching for a problem.

            I’m done with the subject. Bye.

  6. And there is no argument to dispute how some in Watertown behave toward others in Watertown. What about the argument, if you aren’t breaking the law, then you have nothing to worry about? To dismiss the disturbing experiences people are having in town is the actual act of a demogege. A demagogue takes such experiences, say they don’t matter, and then purports that the body raising concerns only exists to further some gotcha agenda, all the while shifting responsibility. It is the old tactic of XYZ being labelled the enemy of the people -people being narrowly defined.

    As for legal murkiness, that can be easily alleviated in a number of ways. For example, put people with field expertise, an HR background or attorneys on the board. The worry over sensitive information is a bit of a red herring. The moment information is exchanged, information containment is reduced. It doesn’t matter who the actors are or in which environment. So if people are under the notion that such information isn’t already in the ether, then they need to reconsider such a notion.

    • What is a demogege?

      And, those claiming “disturbing experiences” exist need to list what those are (who, where, how, when). Until then, they remain figments of imagination. Samples, please.

      • It is quite unreasonable to ask for examples of such incidents as others who might be involved may not consent to have their problems aired publicly on line.

        If you think that there is no bias here, then you are self deceiving. Watertown is thankfully, less troubled than most places. But there is always room for improvement.

        • Anyone who has a basic understanding of human nature would recognize it as reasonable when individuals who have been harmed do not want to air issues publicly. Specific reason would include shame and retaliation. Those who feign ignorance use this as atactic to disarm. They demand public airing in order to bolster claims of deception when the demand is not met. The individuals who are harmed will never be given the benefit of the doubt.

      • No. Do I need to bring up the recent multi-million dollar judgement against the City? It’s stuff like that. And it is a problem.

      • “I find the LGBQ etc., theme colors scattered around town on benches revolting.”

        A great example of someone hallucinating a threat in a multicolored bench. This points to a problem as the person who made the comment appears to have been waiting to make such a comment and used benign benches as an excuse.

        Sometimes a bench is just a bench. It would be funny if it weren’t pathetic.

  7. Many communities across the Boston region have Human Rights Commissions. None of the “scary” outcomes predicted by people here have come to pass. It’s a smokescreen to resist attempts to create welcoming communities by those who simply don’t want such a place.

    • Living in Watertown for my entire life and not leaving here as some do, please tell me when Watertown has not been welcoming. I meet people all the time, from elsewhere, Coolidge Square is one of the most diverse parts since the 60’s I’d say and was a great area to work in. So I don’t see the resistance to what we already and have been for as long as I can remember, if this offends you then maybe you don’t get the feel for Watertown as I do. That’s why I still live here!

      • Can you imagine that the experience of people other than yourself may have been and may continue to be different? I’m sorry that the attempts to be welcoming and inclusive are so scary to some people. There is nothing to fear. Save your concern for the extremists trying to take away our democracy and our human rights.

          • But our nation has evolved in the direction of democracy from the time of the founders and the documents they created. The founders felt that women and non-property owners should not vote. Slavery was legal and enslaved people counted as 3/5 of a person and, of course, did not have the franchise.

            Securing voting rights for more than half the population (women and African Americans) was a project that has taken more than a century and is still not complete.

            Do you not favor democracy as a worthy ideal for our country to aspire to and work toward? I do.

    • Mr. Fahey,
      The smoke screen being created is by people trying to reinvent a highly partisan human rights commission. Throughout history human rights commissions have been created to hold leader of government accountable, not its citizens. We are already a divided nation and these so call commissions have created fear among the population. Let’s not pour anymore gas in this inferno, by assailing someone use of the word “scary”.
      From the article:
      Councilor John Gannon, who has been a city attorney in Watertown and other communities, said that he has seen human rights commissions in other communities have the ability to conduct investigations and have the power to issue subpoenas.

      Most of the counsels use the same basic framework. Living in a city and state were the citizens who have a differing point of view are pacified. Kinda like what you just did to me. we live in a city and state with one party rule, it’s not bravery by voting with the ruling class all the time. It’s AUTHORATARIAN and yes scary indeed.

  8. Again, if you are not breaking a law or harassing others, then you have nothing to worry about. This is the refrain I often hear when people want more surveillance, curfews or face detecting technology. People should worry more over their neighbors’ Nest cameras and AirTags than the HRC.

    The sign at St. Stephen’s is no figment of one’s imagination. That happened this past week, and the city council president said it was unacceptable.

    Post in refence to colorful benches on September 12, 2023 at 5:53 PM in Watertown News:
    “I find the LGBQ etc., theme colors scattered around town on benches revolting.”

    BOSTON – A jury has awarded more than $4 million to a former Massachusetts police detective who said in a lawsuit that she was subjected to demeaning and sexist comments at work and rebuked for speaking up about dangerous conduct by other officers during the search for a Boston Marathon bombing suspect. – November 11, 2022 – Boston Globe

    From Twitter
    “just cycled thru @watertowngov where an old white man with mop & water was erasing “black” from #BlackLivesMattters. I stopped & asked him why he was doing this. It’s “offensive, “divisive” & his “1st amendment right…”3:12 PM · Jun 9, 2020, Reported by Channel 7 News

    Two weeks ago, at the Watertown Middle School, a student walked into the boys bathroom on the second floor and discovered a swastika drawn on the wall. The administration has investigated the incident, but were unable to determine the person responsible. – December 19, 2018 Reported in the Watertown Tab

    (Boston, July 26, 2009) On July 14, 2009, a rainbow flag displayed at First Parish of Watertown Unitarian Universalist was burned in an act of vandalism. The rainbow flag is a symbol of diversity and inclusiveness and an expression of being a Welcoming Congregation to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.

    These are serious community issues. Not all of these should go to the Human Rights Commission. A lawsuit is beyond the scope of the HRC, and a homophobic opinion, while hateful, is still an opinion. However, the HRC can shed light on these issues and help the community get more resources so that these things happen less or they don’t rise to the occasion of a lawsuit or people leaving the community.

    These all happened here, and none of it is OK. Never was. Never will be. If it is ok with you, then it’s up to you to figure out why, or not. Your experience(s), however, does not represent the totality of all humanity.

      • It is the crux of the problem. It’s a threat, particularly to status when others erode the broad acceptance of a singular point of view, it’s a threat. So the goal of the threatened is to dismiss experiences by any means necessary..

    • If that’s all there is, I suspect the HRC will not have much to do on a regular basis. Its record will speak for itself as close scrutiny will reveal.

    • Swastikas and burning rainbow flags are not small matters. Good examples Rita without outing any persons who have been discriminated against.

      • These people don’t care about this kind of discrimination. They don’t care that we had an attempted insurrection in 2021. It’s very sad to see.

        • What people are you talking about when you use the term, “These” That’s a rather broad brush about something or someone being grouped into being labeled by you, as seen in your comments above, when you know very little or nothing at all about the person or thing. I’m going with the latter, “nothing at all”.

          • I am referring to ignorant people. People who can’t understand that the life experiences they have had are not always shared by people from traditionally marginalized groups. People who minimize the importance of human rights and compassion and human respect.

          • I believe you are right.

            The term “these people” is derogatory. Period. Those who use it know nothing or very little, generally, about their audience. But I don’t think they care. They expect that we must agree blindly with what they say and believe. Don’t expect adherence to DEIB practices when it is required from them.

            Can’t wait to see them in action with the HRC.

  9. Eric Jepsen whether one agrees or not with the establishment of the Human Rights Commission, your analogy lacks basic sensitivity. As a Black Person, I am personally offended. I think you could have easily used another analogy. I voted against the Human Rights Commission twenty years ago; however the city’s demographic makeup is drastically different than it was then. l am mindful this fact and a board must be determined on merit. As far as I am concerned, if there are abuses conducted by said Commission, the Council voted for its creation and can certainly admit is was a mistake and vote to terminate.

    *”Yes. Busy bodies trying to catch a non-existent black cat in a dark room while yelling “I got it, I got i!”.’*

    • And for the record:

      From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
      (Redirected from Black Cat)

      A black cat is a cat with black fur.

    • I’m not sure Mr. Jepson meant any harm by his comment. His statement was pretty clear about blindness not race. Let’s not take our citizens comments out of context. I believe that you should earn votes. That’s not the way sir!

      • Precisely.Thank you, Mr. Chiapperini.

        Incidentally, Mr. Younger has the HRC genesis (and demise) wrong as well. The voters – not the Council – brought it to fruition by incorporating it to the City Charter. And while the Council may allow or limit certain things about HRC, it cannot terminate it. Time to study for the debate…

        • Mr. Jepsen,

          If HRC was in the Charter when I was President of the Council I would know since I was on the Initial Charter Review Committee that established this form of government. I served as President for a considerable number of years and whether we had a ten year review or a Special HRC was not included in the Charter. If it was in the Charter, the Council would have no other alternative than following the Charter and implementing HRC as stated in the Charter.

          I am confused with the time frame you are speaking about. I am speaking about before 2010.

          • You stated “the Council voted for its creation”. That was incorrect – before or after 2010. And my reference of its creation was concomitant to its inclusion in the Charter now.

  10. I found it unfortunate that the Watertown News chose to focus its article on the establishment of the Human Rights Commission as it did. The City Attorney was right to question the few sentences that he did. They were misleading and should have been written better to make it clear that the Commission will not have legal or investigative authorities. There could have been some “wordsmithing” in the session (or before) to improve that particular paragraph. The primary role of the Commission will be to educate the public and to establish networking among groups in the City who may be dealing with incidents of discrimination. It will also be a place where people who have experienced some kind of discrimination can get support, resources, and help with next steps. Anyone who is frightened by the creation of this Commission is misperceiving its intentions. Anyone who doesn’t see that there have been incidents in our community is keeping their eyes closed. Anyone who doesn’t know that most communities around us have Commissions that are of benefit to their residents is not keeping up with our world. We have to assume that our City Manager will choose the best candidates to become our Commissioners and that our Commission will prove itself to be a good resource for our City.

  11. None of the replies to the examples dispute the factuality of the examples. Some just criticize their “relevance.” At this point it best to disengage with some individuals because it is very clear that logic and understanding elude them at this time.

    • You are correct Rita. I had an individual who comments here call me at my place of work to make personal accusations against me for what I post here. This is sadly the world we now live in. “Good trouble” upsets some people!

      • Yes I called you about your comments that I didn’t like [these people/ignorant] to see if it was directed towards me. Instead of discussing and clearing up the matter, you took offense that someone actually called you on your comments, not understanding why at work, etc. then saying I was harassing you. I identified myself and the reason for the call, you went off and hung up. You then called me back on your cell , inviting me to call you back at that cell number. I did and left you a message of I didn’t appreciate your comments, funny thing you like to have the last word so of course you called back and left a message, which I still have. Pretty sad accusations if they were true, So you said in the message that you were going to call the police on me for harassing you and here you are going from, abuser to victim from YOUR actions! As you stated it’s a free country and you can say anything you want, yours would be the furthest from the term “Good Trouble”! It’s also a 2 way street not a one way as you would prefer so as you say, Grow Up! Your on tape. I didn’t respond back to your voicemail, just letting it go and here you are, when you had a chance to discuss and once again you go back to the Bully Pulpit, the only way you know how, pathetic right.

  12. My comments stand. You can say whatever you want to here, whether it’s true or not. But if you call and harass me at my place of work or my home, I will call the police. You must be feeling very guilty for what you’ve done. I would if I were you.

  13. Human Rights Commission just leaves me with the image of some god-awful country where authoritarian rulers have used and abused the population to whatever ends. Is that the image our citizens have of Watertown?

    • I don’t. And most of us do not. But everybody is entitled to be different with a modicum of decorum, somehow absent in some of “these” comments.

      We just need to watch where the HRC and its supporters go with it.

      And most thankful to Mr. Chiapperini for getting these comments started; as he – and others – can see, he is not alone. And we are not afraid to comment. Far from it.

  14. Virtually every major city in the Boston area has a Human Rights Commission. The hysteria in so many of these comments bears no resemblance to reality. None. They are rooted in fear of change.

    • So you are saying that the Human Rights commission is equivalent to Nazification? Holy cow, that’s quite an accusation!

      This only convinces me that the HRC may indeed be quite necessary.

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