Wheeling HRC Continue to Debate Discrimination at Public Comments
"Is hate speech part of the definition of discrimination?" Human Rights Commission argue the public comment period of City Council meetings.
First amendment conversations continue to reign supreme during the Wheeling Human Rights Commission’s regular business meetings. For two months now, the Commission has debated over whether to put their hat in the ring regarding the City Council’s public comment period.
Commissioners Elissa Gross and David Miller voiced a concern to the Human Rights Commission during their June business meeting that the public comment period has been used for discrimination . Specifically, the Ohio County GOP Chair has used her time to attack the LGBTQ+ community, often targeting Councilor Rosemary Ketchum, Ward 3, who is a transgender woman.
Chair Ralph Dunkin said, “the time after the [City Council] meeting has sometimes been filled with hate speech.” Members of the Commission were in agreement about this, but ultimately disagreed with whether they had the power to act.
“We’re concerned about the discrimination issue,” Dunkin said, “but it’s not our time. It’s the City Council’s time.” City Council meetings are run by Mayor Glenn Elliott. It is up to Mayor Elliott to determine whether, in his opinion, the public comment period is being misused.
Mayor Elliott has set boundaries for the comment period in the past. During a City Council meeting in May, Mayor Elliott put an end to the yielding of time. Members of the public would sign up for time only to ‘donate’ it to others to allow them to speak for longer.
The public comment period is tradition—not required by law.
A question was posed as to whether the time had outgrown its use. Councilor Ketchum, who has often been targeted during the public comment period, and who was in attendance at the meeting, offered her opinion to the Commission and to The Hudson Editorial afterwards.
“Personally, I believe it has use,” Councilor Ketchum said. “I believe that we ought to keep the current comment period as it is. I do appreciate the ability for folks to come and speak about whatever topic they care about, in part because that is the transparency of government.”
“I also believe that there is an opportunity to create a sense of decorum in these spaces,” Councilor Ketchum continued. “Not just so that members of council are not personally attacked, but members of the public also feel safe and welcome in that space.”
The City Council does not respond to the public comment period. The closest they have come to a response in years was at their May 2nd meeting, when Councilor Ben Seidler, Ward 2, abruptly left the meeting as the Ohio County GOP Chair began to speak—an event that sparked controversy in the city. The GOP Chair is a known agitator in the City of Wheeling.
Councilor Ketchum advised community members who are upset by the use of the public comment period to come to City Council meetings and offer a counterbalance to the negativity—to offer something positive. Sign-ups to speak at Council are open until 15 minutes before the meeting.
It is the opinion of the Wheeling Human Rights Commission not to address the situation for now. If a member of the public, or member of the City Council, feels discriminated against and brings that concern to the Human Rights Commision, a response may occur.
Comm’r Miller stated that they needed to trust Mayor Elliott to effectively run the public comments.
The agenda item to continue discussion about the public comment period was removed from future meetings.
In other business, multiple discrimination inquiries were brought to the Commission’s attention, with few details offered due to their contents being confidential. One case was reported to the Weirton Human Rights Commission, and another local case was an employment discrimination complaint.
A handful of complaints are brought to the Commission’s attention each meeting. The procedure is to offer the complainant a form to fill out, which typically leads to the case being dropped.
Some members of the Commission have privately voiced frustration over this, saying more needs to be done to assist people in filing their complaints.
New officers were elected for the Human Rights Commission. Chair Dunkin, who is term limited in his position, presided over the vote for his successor. Comm’r Joshua Lief was elected Chair and Comm’r Vincent DeGeorge was elected Vice Chair—effective at their August 9 meeting.
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