August 20, 2008

Twp. mulls status of Human Rights Comm.
BY JAMIE ROMM Staff Writer

MIDDLETOWN The township plans to examine the role of the Middletown Human Rights Commission (MHRC) to determine if it is a viable part of township affairs.

Township Administrator Anthony Mercantante said the township is looking into the makeup of the commission, which should have 11 members and currently has only six members.

"We've been having discussions over the past few months about the Human Rights Commission," Mercantante said at the Township Committee meeting Aug. 4.

"The talk was apparently about the lack of membership in that only six of the 11 positions are filled and there has been difficulty in filling the positions."

Mercantante said he had sent a memo to the Township Committee suggesting that it form a subcommittee to look at the MHRC to determine if it is constituted properly.

"I think we could look at that to see if the commission itself is a viable entity," Mercantante said. "If it is, we have to look at its makeup, maybe a smaller commission if possible.

"[I] Just thought it would give us an opportunity to take a look at the status of the Human Rights Commission, and if the Township Committee were so inclined, to take an analytical look at the issue and make some suggestions rather than make this an ongoing problem that has been festering over the past few months."

Membership on the commission decreased to six after the Township Committee failed to reappoint Carolyn Schwebel, a well-known advocate for the disabled, to the commission for 2008. The committee cited the fact that she is one of the plaintiffs in a legal action brought against the township for failure to comply with requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as a reason for refusing to reappoint her.

The MHRC passed a resolution in January requesting that all 11 seats be filled and urging the committee to reappoint Schwebel, but no new members have been named.

In the resolution, the MHRC requested that the Township Committee fill all 11 seats and diversify the membership of the commission.

Schwebel and her husband, John, have been speaking at the monthly Township Committee meetings since January, expressing their concern at the township's failure to reappoint her and the decrease in membership.

Carolyn Schwebel spoke at the Aug. 4 meeting and was concerned with Mercantante's use of the word "festering," when it came to the HRC.

"I meant it in the sense that we keep hearing about the commission and the numbers that they have and we need to look at it," Mercantante said. "It wasn't to be taken negatively."

Schwebel said the commission has such low numbers because no new members have been appointed, an argument that Mercantante disagreed with.

"We've never had a full commission," Schwebel said. "It's always been at most eight or nine people, and we are always asking for more."

Schwebel said that she never wants to see the commission dissolved.

"We've been around for 40 years and we'll be around for 40 more," Schwebel said. "It's an important piece in Middletown ."

The township Web site lists the Human Rights Commission as an "advisory body created pursuant to state law."

It defines the MRHC mission as: "Their purpose is to foster, through community effort or otherwise, good will, cooperation and conciliation among the groups and elements of the citizens of the community and to make recommendations to the Township Committee for the development of policies and procedures in general and for programs of formal and informal education that will aid to eliminate all types of discrimination based on race, creed, color, national origin, ancestry, age, marital status, affectional or sexual orientation, familial status, disability, nationality or sex."

MHRC member Don Tow was at the Township Committee meeting and said that about 20 people showed up for the commission's special meeting held to discuss a race relations controversy that had been posted on some local blogs.

He said that normally the meetings are attended by commission members and a few interested parties.

"We had 20 people there," Tow said. "Never had I seen so many people at one of our meetings.

Tow also said that the commission is an important part of Middletown .

"We meet the fourth Thursday of every month," Tow said. "We base our discussion on what is going on in town."

Mayor Gerard Scharfenberger and Deputy Mayor Pamela Brightbill agreed that a subcommittee would be a good idea, and Committeeman Patrick Short expressed an interest in being a part of the process.

"I would like to volunteer for the subcommittee when it comes time to discuss it," Short said. "I think it's an important matter that deserves to be looked into."