March 26, 2008

Schwebel rebuts letter by MHRC member
Guest Column CAROLYN SCHWEBEL
Arecent letter widely published over Maria Stokes's name is very articulate but hurtful, and contains serious errors. In fact, the very "mission statement" quoted in the Stokes letter is not themission statement, but simply a description of the Middletown Human Rights Commission (MHRC) from the township Web site.

The Middletown Human Rights Commission has not "strayed way beyond" the mission statement.

The official mission statement from the MHRC bylaws is:

"Mission Statement":

It is the mission of the Human Rights Commission, a body of citizens broadly representative of the diverse groups of our township, appointed by the mayor and township committee:

To measure the human effects of all proposed and current township, state and federal programs that have or may have an effect on human and civil rights and to recommend to the mayor and Township Committee appropriate human rights policies based on such evaluations.

To encourage through government and private machinery the fullest social and economic contributions of all minority groups to the community.

To advance human rights in the community by eliminating the causes and the effects of prejudice, discrimination and group tensions.

To foster greater understanding and observance of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination "

I have no idea what the Stokes letter refers to by " encroaching on the areas more properly delegated to the county or State Human Rights Commission " and the suggestion that theMHRC has been "involved in areas outside of Middletown." It is not okay to say that the MHRC strayed beyond the mission without citing examples. It is clear from the actual MHRC mission statement and other documents that a role of the MHRC is to coordinate with the NJ Division on Civil Rights (DCR), in supporting the Law Against Discrimination (LAD).

Another egregious error in the letter is the statement thatmy " confrontational legal actions have cost, and are costing, the taxpayers dearly." If the mayor and the township committee did not violate the laws, there would be no lawsuit that would culminate in an expense to the taxpayers. For 17 years, I worked with goodwill and conciliation to encourage Middletown officials to become compliant with long-standing accessibility laws. Only when nothing was corrected and even new construction was done in violation of the laws did we finally file the lawsuit in June 2004, to ensure that people with disabilities, including wounded veterans, children, those weakened by age or illness, are able to participate fully in Middletown.

The Stokes letter disingenuously states that I " serve a specific term at the pleasure of the township committee." Six months after the lawsuit was filed, the township committee reappointed me to the MHRC inDecember 2004; obviously, they did not see a conflict at that time. The hypocrisy and pretext of the mayor and deputy mayor are evident. Their on-the-record reason for not reappointing me in December 2007 - after 17 years on the commission and months after the lawsuit was settled - is "conflict of interest due to ongoing litigation."

I have never pushed an agenda. In fact, when I led the MHRC in brainstorming possible projects, none of them had to do with accessibility.

The move is clear retaliation and denial of my FirstAmendment rights including free speech and the right to file a lawsuit when discriminated against.As theNJ DCR complaint filed against the township notes, it is illegal to removeme in retaliation for the suit:

"Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 Sec. 12203. Prohibition against retaliation and coercion

(a) Retaliation

No person shall discriminate against any individual because such individual has opposed any act or practice made unlawful by this chapter or because such individual made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this chapter."

I am wondering why Maria never expressed the letter's feelings in an MHRC meeting, although I regularly sought her comments and opinions. Like all MHRC members, she has the right, indeed, the responsibility to represent the opinions of her constituency group. In my three years as chairperson, all votes but one were unanimous.

After a unanimous meeting vote, the MHRC membership sent the township committee a letter of support forme requesting that I be reappointed. Like all of our letters, it was circulated to all members by e-mail for comments and corrections. Maria, who was not at the meeting, had ample opportunity to disagree.

Maria notes that " we are an advisory body only!" Since the township committee has responded to or accepted none of its advice or suggestions, what role is left for the MHRC?

Carolyn Schwebel is a resident of the Leonardo section of Middletown