Wheeling Human Rights Commission Discuss Discrimination During Public Comment Period
The commission debated whether to take action about perceived discriminatory remarks. A healthy discussion about free speech ensued.
The Wheeling Human Rights Commission met in the City Council Chambers Wednesday, June 14, for their monthly meeting. Of the nine member commission, seven were in attendance.
Chair Ralph Dunkin moved to condense the agenda, limiting it to a discussion about the public comment time during city council, and an executive session regarding nominations for the third annual community award for someone who supports human rights. The motion was approved.
Discussion centered on whether the commission should issue a statement regarding the Wheeling City Council public comment period. Comm’r Elisa Gross and Comm’r David Miller voiced concerns that members of the public use the time to discriminate, while other members of the commission argued this was a free speech issue.
“The public discussion was held without any sense of respectful dialogue or decorum, specifically targeting Councilwoman Rosemary Ketchum,” Comm’r Gross alleged. She says comments were made at recent meetings that Gross deemed discriminatory against the LGBTQ+ community.
Comm’r Gross said she had tried to reach Mayor Glenn Elliott to persuade him to speak about using the public comment period in a respectful manner, but that she believed the mayor was sensitive to the issue of censoring public comment period.”The reality I told him was, since he conducts the meeting, it’s up to him to determine if these meetings are held in a productive and respectful way,” Comm’r Gross said.
Speaking about the May 16 meeting when a member of the public directed her comments to the audience, Comm’r Miller said, “[The public comment period] is somewhat out of control, but I understand where the mayor is at this point.”
Comm’r Joshua Leif said he has been attacked personally during public comments in the past, but that he didn’t believe the commission should put out a statement. He said doing so could lead to some feeling as though their free speech has been stifled, which Comm’r Leif argued may violate the HRC charter.
“Our commission has in its purview public accommodations,” Comm’r Leif said. “While yes, it would be great if people spoke respectfully about each other, the truth is ironically allowing people to have their say–even to say things that are offensive–is under the guise of public accommodation,” Comm’r Leif said of the public comment period.
A recommendation was made by Comm’r Vincent DeGeorge that a one to two sentence statement be authored for Mayor Elliott to read at the City Council meeting encouraging public comments to be made respectfully and free of discrimination. “While there is a lot of behavior going on there that may be objectionable, given this committee’s scope pertaining to discrimination, we may be limited,” Comm’r DeGeorge said.
Ultimately, no motion was taken to give a statement to the City Council. Commissioners voiced concern that doing so would lead to the public comment period to be suspended, something no one was in favor of. The Human Rights Commission moved to continue discussion about the public comment period at future meetings.
The commission went into an executive session to discuss nominations for the ‘Third Annual Community Award for Someone Who Supports Human Rights.’
The public was invited back into the City Council Chambers for the conclusion of the meeting.
The commission was invited to participate in Youth Services System’s August 10 ‘Celebrate Youth,’ event at Wheeling Park, to which several Commissioners voiced support for.
This meeting was the last for Comm’r Bryant Anderson, who is stepping away from the commission. The vacancy will be filled by Mayor Elliott, with the approval of the City Council. Chair Dunkin is term limited in his leadership role, but will continue serving on the commission. New officers will be elected at the Human Rights Commission’s July 12 meeting.
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