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.”