.County disbanding commission focused on ending discrimination

The Marin County Board of Supervisors placed the Human Rights Commission on “pause” three months ago, suspending its operations. This week, the board unanimously approved beginning the process to “sunset” the group.

A scenic-sounding euphemism for shutting it down doesn’t make the pill any easier to swallow. With Marin ranked as California’s third most racially disparate county in the 2023 Race Counts report, it seems the local commission’s mission of promoting social justice and equality and eliminating discrimination would be mighty important.

The pending dissolution comes as a blow to the dedicated volunteers appointed to the commission. Ditto for those concerned about Marin’s continuing struggles with equity, including increased racial segregation, racial profiling by law enforcement, significantly lower life expectancy in underserved communities, homelessness, lack of affordable housing, food insecurity and more.

Over the last year, the Human Rights Commission (HRC) tried to tackle some of these issues with their relatively low $13,500 annual budget. During their public meetings, the group approved funding for community refrigerators in low-income neighborhoods, lunch gift cards during the summer months for vulnerable children and porta-potties for homeless people in Fairfax and San Rafael.

Funds were also earmarked for a brake light clinic to replace broken bulbs in vehicles belonging to people of color, helping to prevent pretextual stops by law enforcement. Working brake lights help folks breathe easier when they’re trying to get to work on time, especially when the Marin County Sheriff’s Office stops Black people at almost nine times the rate of white people, according to data analysis by Mill Valley Force for Racial Equity & Empowerment.

But the county never allowed any of the projects to move forward; instead, seemingly stringing the group along for months.

Marin residents should demand some straight talk from the county about the reasons behind disbanding a vital group. I tried, but the responses I received don’t make much sense. Neither does the county’s recently issued press release or administrative staff report.

Jamillah Jordan, Marin’s Office of Equity director, played a role in the recommendation to ax the commission. It began, she said, with a process to reevaluate all 59 boards and commissions under the Board of Supervisors.

In November, the county surveyed members of the groups and determined that they are predominantly white, over 60 and well educated, Jordan said. While stating the county needs to work on broadening inclusion, Jordan cited two groups with diverse membership—the Commission on Aging and the HRC.

Indeed, sitting behind the dais at the HRC meetings are two Black men, one Black woman, a Latinx woman, a white man who was formerly homeless and a white woman.

Yet the diverse HRC is one of five groups on the chopping block. When looking at the list provided by Jordan, it’s easy to spot that one of these things is not like the others.

The Access Appeals Board last met in 2015. The Architectural Commission and the Building Board of Appeals haven’t held meetings since 2018. Jordan couldn’t say when the Fair Advisory Board met previously, although she verified this group lacks current members and has no applications for new ones.

Those familiar with the beleaguered 60-year history of Marin’s HRC might not find it surprising that it’s currently the subject of debate. Mill Valley librarian Natalie Snoyman’s podcast, 80 Years of Racial Justice Work in Southern Marin, chronicled the county’s previous pushback on the group.

“It’s history repeating itself, unfortunately,” Snoyman said. “The Human Rights Commission hasn’t always received a lot of support.”

Marin County Supervisor Eric Lucan served on the subcommittee created to review the county’s boards and commissions. He stands behind the recommendation to rid Marin of the only commission devoted to human rights. This is despite the fact that Marin is “the most segregated county in the region by far,” according to UC Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute.

“The scope of the HRC was overly broad,” Lucan said. “I think there were internally lots of questions—what is the scope of the HRC? That’s something different members were trying to sort out amongst themselves, and it probably needed a lot of clarity from the Board of Supervisors.”

Additionally, Lucan pointed out the county will soon launch a Sheriff’s Oversight Commission, which is also a talking point in the staff report that attempts to justify sunsetting the HRC.

The county’s position is that for the last two years, the HRC’s primary function involved exploring the creation of the Sheriff’s Oversight Commission. With that work now complete, the staff report states the county needs to focus on establishing the oversight group, inferring the HRC distracts from that mission.

Lucan and Jordan also maintain that the work of the HRC can be absorbed by the future sheriff’s oversight group and other boards and commissions. Both mentioned the Women’s Commission and the Commission on Aging as groups with concerns about equity.

However, expecting other Marin commissions—tasked with their own specific missions—to address equity on a consistent basis could pose a challenge for those groups. One might say these commissions would then have an “overly broad scope.”

The county’s reasons for disbanding the HRC ring hollow. However, I have some plausible ideas about what may have precipitated the decision.

Emails show friction existed between the commission chairperson, Jeremy Portje, and staff liaisons, particularly Roger Crawford, who is also the county’s equal employment opportunity director.

Portje acknowledges that he didn’t always submit meeting agenda items or corrections to the minutes in a timely manner. More substantial issues surfaced when trying to get staff to purchase supplies for the programs approved by the commission, Portje said.

I reviewed emails between Portje and staff that would lead a reasonable person to believe resources were forthcoming. Yet month after month, there were delays.

Unbeknownst to Portje at the time, no amount of effort would have been enough to shake loose the budget—not for the brake light clinic and community refrigerators approved in May, the children’s lunch program approved in June or the port-a-potties approved in September.

“No commissions have the authority to enter into contracts or direct staff to enter into service agreements,” County Administrator Matthew Hymel told me in an email. “I did not tell Roger Crawford to stall, but I did tell him that the funds were not set aside for direct services like the brake light clinics as soon as I heard of it. I told him that the Commission, as an advisory board, could adopt a resolution or letter requesting that the County explore providing these services.”

Crawford and sometimes other staff liaisons were present at the meetings when the HRC approved the projects, never informing the commissioners that their research, discussion and votes would be for naught.

“No one had said any of this before,” Portje said. “We never knew these programs were out of our purview.”

Hymel doesn’t remember when he told Crawford about the policy. Finally, in October, long after relations had become strained, Crawford sent an email to Portje stating that he should consult with the Board of Supervisors “before doing such things as hosting a break [sic] light clinic and buying port-a-potties.”

Meetings sometimes turned into a circus, becoming another problem for the county to contend with. A Berkeley citizen journalist, Eva Chrysanthe, often disrupted meetings when she refused to adhere to time limits during public comment and talked over the commissioners.

During the April and December meetings, the situation with Chysanthe spun out of control, according to several members of the commission. I asked Chrysanthe for her perspective.

Chrysanthe alleged that she was shoved and coughed on during the April meeting by Portje’s wife. When a “promised” apology from the commission didn’t materialize, she submitted a written report about what she described as an “assault” to the Board of Supervisors, their aides and Marin County District Attorney Lori Frugoli. Ultimately, Chysanthe said she decided not to pursue the matter.

Portje, vice chair Jason Sarris and several attendees at the meeting said that they saw no physical altercation, though two to three members of the public approached Chrysanthe and told her to stop interrupting.

At the conclusion of the December meeting, Chrysanthe approached another attendee, who indicated that she didn’t want to answer any questions. Sarris blocked her from following the woman, Chysanthe said, but she maneuvered past him. However, according to Chrysanthe, Portje shoved her to prevent her from exiting the room.

While Chrysanthe showed me a video that she purported would prove Portje assaulted her by bumping her with his chest, I did not see any evidence of physical contact. Chrysanthe declined to let me view the video a second time, instead saying that she would release it to the public.

Portje filed a report with the Marin County Sheriff’s Office about the same incident, claiming Chrysanthe shoved him. It’s still under investigation, Portje said.

Thorny issues. So, why didn’t the supervisors simply ask Portje to step down as chair or resign from the HRC? Perhaps it’s because he’s one of few Black people serving on a commission, and that wouldn’t be a good look for a county. Or maybe the county is concerned about legal blowback. Portje is currently suing the City of Sausalito for $21 million, claiming his civil rights were violated by police officers who targeted him because he’s African American.

Curtis Aikens, an HRC commissioner, suggested months ago to the supervisors that the group needed a reboot. Ideally, he wanted to open the application process and have everyone reapply for their seats.

“We have a system that is not working,” Aikens said. “The county did not properly train us. We should have known how to conduct a meeting. We should have known our duties and responsibilities for outreach to the community. I’m faulting all of us, but the work we did and can do is needed by the county.”

Nikki Silverstein
Nikki Silverstein is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Pacific Sun since 2005. She escaped Florida after college and now lives in Sausalito with her Chiweenie and an assortment of foster dogs. Send news tips to [email protected].

18 COMMENTS

  1. A sincere step backwards in The evolution of our social contracts is human beings. If there’s one thing I know I can always count on this county to do.It’s the wrong thing.

    • Please sign me up for the newsletter - No
    • If Marin is not “liberal” enough for you, you might feel more at home in China or Cuba or North Korea.

      • Please sign me up for the newsletter - Yes
  2. This whole process is a disgrace. Once again, Nikki S. pulls back the curtain on the huge disparity between what the county says and what it does. Another nail in the coffin of any belief that the county cares about equity or human rights.
    These commissions are made up of citizens who want to serve their community yet they are given no training on parliamentary procedures or even what the purview of their commissions are. No support whatsoever.
    The HRC was set up for failure.
    I was in attendance at several of those meetings where Ms. Crysanthe claims to have been physically abused. I will swear in a court of law that no physical contact was made between her and any commission member or attendee. She made those meetings pure hell with her constant criticism of the board and disruptions. She doesn’t criticize the system that made our county so segregated, no, she only criticizes the people trying to do something about it. She doesn’t even live in the county.
    Thank you again, Nikki. Please take care of yourself. We need you to be around for a long time.

    • Please sign me up for the newsletter - Yes
    • Good riddance, HRC, a useless, tax wasting embarrassment in the fight against “racism” – a war that was won decades ago in one of the most “progressive” counties anywhere. And a pointless exercise in virtue-signaling by journalist(?) Silverstein and writer Meg, above, who insist on fighting causes they won years ago, while trying to guilt-trip the rest of us so they can feel good about themselves.

      Absolutely nothing prevents black Marin residents from buying homes and holding equal pay jobs in Marin, as they have for decades. Every honest and common sense Marin resident already knows this.

      Thank you, Eric Lucan or refusing to cave to the regressive nonsense of Marin “progressives” – and for taking the first steps in reducing a grossly-bloated Marin County budget that threatens to soon bankrupt county government, an incontrovertible fact the Pacific Sun seems curiously uninterested in reporting.

      • Please sign me up for the newsletter - Yes
  3. The Pen is mightier than the Sword or Seeing is Believing. Just watch any HRC meeting video of 2023 and make up your own mind.

    • Please sign me up for the newsletter - Yes
  4. “Funds were also earmarked for a brake light clinic to replace broken bulbs in vehicles belonging to people of color, helping to prevent pretextual stops by law enforcement.” what a shame, now people will be responsible to maintain their cars , like everyone else.
    Looks like thats one way to stop the shoving and bumping, which seems to be the style of a few attendees .

    • Please sign me up for the newsletter - Yes
  5. As a Marin native, a life long activist, a human being, I am both saddened and disgusted by this dystopian decision. And excuse me, how long does it take to establish a clearly long overdue “sheriff’s oversight group ” ? ?? Where are the County Supervisors on. this? Where is the leadership? WTF? I miss the progressive era when Barbara Boxer and her ilk served on the Board when I was a youngster. This reversal is yet another of so many reasons I am very happy to have left Marin/California/the hardly United States of amerikkka 5 years ago, though I do miss my most solid and oldest friend Mt. Tamalpais, and Point Reyes… Nikki Silverstein, please keep up the excellent investigative reporting!

    • Please sign me up for the newsletter - Yes
  6. Thanks Nikki, for reporting on this. The HRC needs to be reinstated. All the things they approved are totally worthwhile.!!!

    • Please sign me up for the newsletter - Yes
  7. Thank you Nikki and the Pacific Sun. A well-written and important article.

    • Please sign me up for the newsletter - Yes
  8. I’m glad to see Marin County seems to be awakening from wokery. Better late than never. But the number of wine moms and single white females in the county remains an obstacle to progress.

    • Please sign me up for the newsletter - Yes
    • Nice to see the same name that appeared on a SF Chronicle byline for years. Same writer? The woke are all in a deep sleep, agreed, but I don’t understand your point about wine moms and single white females…??

      • Please sign me up for the newsletter - Yes
  9. Thank you Nikki Silverstein and the Pacific Sun. Your thoughtful reporting is much appreciated.-
    -Jane Hall
    San Anselmo

    • Please sign me up for the newsletter - Yes
  10. I love that half the comments prove just how important this commission is. Thank you for putting your hateful, misinformed, Fox News loving ideas for all to see. You have helped us prove our point. We will NEVER stop fighting for equality in this county. You expressing your anger only shows me our efforts are working. All of you hateful humans in the comments talking about those who take care of the vulnerable populations, you are making us famous and doing our work for us. Keep it up!

    • Please sign me up for the newsletter - No
    • Human Right Commissioners need to be duly elected and not appointed by the Marin County Supervisors to have agency to stand up to governmental and institutional top down decisions that uphold institutional racism and classism. Years ago, when there was no attorney appointed to the HRC, an attorney, Roger C., was appointed by the BOS to make sure the HRC only do the supervisors bidding, controlling what and how the HRC do the job of changing a shameful history of lack of DEI, lack of Equity. For too long public comments at the BOS, BOC meetings are used only to “check off the box of community participation”. Communities of wealth get to hire lawyers to stand up to the “top down decision making process” in Marin local politics. The 14th amendment to the US Constitution was pointed out by RBG as important……in Marin County it seems money is more important than holding all equal under the law.
      Making the HRC absolute because of the current way it is set up and has no agency…is just a way to “check the box” and say…”we tried” but the decisions have no teeth….Solution…Give the HRC agency to operate as a real HRC not just a puppet HRC. I wasted too many hours at HRC meetings thinking we had a real
      voice at HRC meetings. I was wrong.
      We need to elect the HRC Commissioners and not have them appointed by the Supervisors. Democracy v Autocracy. Oh, but democracy would give everyone an equal voice and equal treatment. Reality is we need to update our CA Constitution….Nimby articles, such as Article 36, need to be overturned….And structural change to how local government works is necessary because “business as usual” yields no change to who is at the table, who decides and who, in the end, pays…losing land, assets, communities, and a voice, a presence.
      Ora Hatheway March 30, 2024
      Marin County BOS & BOC and local city council leaders need to take some time for deep reflection and stop denying there is nothing that can change…only the wealthy can make the rules…only the wealthy have agency. The institutional protection for property owners and wealthy constituents will never address Equity in any deep and lasting change ways…. Take the risk BOS, BOC. Democracy is worth the mess. Roll up your sleeves and address Institutional Racism and Classism. Inequity hurts and divides us. It hurts all of our children.

      • Please sign me up for the newsletter - Yes
  11. Ever notice how those claiming to be tolerant, open, minded, liberal, woke or progressive immediately label those with contrary opinions as “racists” – without providing a single incontrovertible fact to prove that?

    There’s a beautiful, perfectly descriptive word to describe this phenomenon:

    HYPOCRISY.

    (When you have no actual facts or proof, do exactly to them what you claim they’re doing to you….)

    • Please sign me up for the newsletter - Yes

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

spot_img
3,002FansLike
3,850FollowersFollow
music in the park san jose
Pacific Sun E-edition Pacific Sun E-edition
boheme magazine e-edition