The Nashville Human Rights Citizens Advisory Committee has worked for the past nine months to evaluate the need for a town human rights commission.

The committee presented its findings to the Nashville Town Council on Nov. 18 and stated that what they discovered showed there is a need for that type of commission locally.

The town council had discussed establishing a commission off and on for months before announcing the acceptance of applications for the advisory committee in January. The goal was to form a group of five people to study “the need, function, structure and scope of a Human Rights Commission.”

Originally the committee was to meet for three months.

The duties of the committee included researching the possible creation of a longer-term human rights commission and what that group would do; reviewing and comparing the human rights commission ordinances of nearby counties and cities; and communicating with the Brown County Commissioners about forming a countywide human rights commission.

Committee President Domonic Potorti presented to the council at the November meeting. He said that their research proved documented inequities in the community, which were identified and voiced by citizens and visitors.

“The town has few — if any — reliable or consistent ways to report or evaluate the quality and treatment of its citizens and visitors,” he said.

He said that precedence is already being established locally, like in the Brown County School Corporation who created a districtwide Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee of staff members in 2019.

“The establishment of the commission would improve the perception of our community and will bring focus on how a small town in rural Indiana can do it,” he said.

Potorti said that when tasked with understanding the needs in the community, committee members asked themselves one question: “How can a highly active and engaged commission provide the citizens of Nashville and Brown County and visitors with human rights and working compliance without requiring new funding?”

It is possible to develop a “hybrid commission,” using state recording and local compassion that combines “best practices?” Potorti asked.

The possible new commission would be able to work in tandem with the state, who has offered training, representation in meetings, print materials, radio PSAs, news articles and legal processing of complaints at no cost, Potorti said.

“With this comprehensive assistance, the commission can focus externally on community awareness and education and building a coalition of stakeholders,” he said, “And internally on training, taking complaints, marketing, PR, website, monthly meetings and reports.”

The Indiana Civil Rights Commission Annual Report of 2020 showed that 8,581 reports were made to the state office. Of those reports, 784 were drafted into complaints and of those complaints 282 were from Region 9, which includes Brown County.

According to the advisory committee’s recommendation document, the “establishment of a Human Rights Commission will ensure that the Town of Nashville/Brown County takes every opportunity to comply with current human rights laws and policies.”

The committee stated in their recommendation a record of “bias and discrimination” has been documented by the newspaper and by comments and complaints taken at the Visitors Center along with personal testimony by shop owners, students and delivery drivers. A need was also documented based on comments taken from more than 100 people who participated in the Nashville Solidarity Rally last year.

An established Human Rights Commission would consolidate all of that reporting instead of having it scattered among different organizations.

The commission would also track community progress in “several human rights-related areas, which may provide credibility in business reviews,” the recommendation from the committee states.

“Innovative human rights policies, may, for example, boost local tourism and business, recruitment of employees, attract potential residents, writing of grants, ratings in surveys and boost the overall perception and health of the community,” the recommendation continues.

Committee history

The town council discussed this topic off and on since the summer of 2020.

In June of 2020, council member Nancy Crocker introduced a draft ordinance to establish a human relations commission, created with the help of the town council Strategic Direction Adviser Dax Norton.

That ordinance spanned nine pages. Norton said at the time it was a compilation of many different ordinances that follow state statute.

At that time, Crocker volunteered to work through the draft with some of the local people who were putting on the Solidarity Rally for Racial Justice that month. An informal task force had been gathering periodically over Zoom to talk through “ways to promote and ensure all people in Brown County — residents, businesses, visitors — are respected, welcome, and treated well regardless of race, religion, gender, abilities, age, etc.,” explained Michele Wedel, one of the group participants, in an email to The Democrat last year.

After a multi-hour meeting in early January, the informal task force came up with the resolution that Crocker presented to the town council at its Jan. 21 meeting. That resolution sought to have the council establish an official temporary citizens advisory committee, which would make recommendations to the council on next steps.

Town council President Jane Gore voted against the resolution.

When opening discussion on the topic, Gore said she did not think the council was ready to vote on it yet and her opinion was that the county should be more involved in it than the town. She said the county is much larger than the town and would have “a lot more to gain on having this put together if they so choose.”

Ten people on the call, plus Crocker and fellow council member Anna Hofstetter, spoke in favor of at least establishing this temporary advisory committee. Many of them said they did not see any downside to it and they did not see how there would be anything controversial about it.

Town Attorney James T. Roberts proposed some changes to the resolution, which the group generally accepted except for a line he wanted to add about the town having a long history of welcoming people of cultural and racial diversity.

Several speakers said that’s not true, including multi-generational residents who shared stories of how their non-white friends were cautious about coming to the county to visit or had been told to leave a public building in Nashville.

In January, Crocker ticked off a list of incidents that have occurred in just the last two years in Brown County, several of which have made statewide or national news: A blackface debate that ended in the dismissal of a coach; a student who was listed in the yearbook not by his name, but only as “BLACK GUY”; a non-white delivery driver who had a gun pulled on him; a screenshot of the high school’s website that was altered to look like it contained a racial slur; and a beer bottle being thrown through a window of local people who are part of the LGBTQ community.

At that time, she said the town needed a commission “more than ever.”

The seven-page recommendation presented last month will now be taken under consideration by the council before a motion is made to form an official commission. Discussion will resume at future council meetings.

“There might be bits and pieces we don’t agree with, things that need to be added,” council member Nancy Crocker said.

“(You) have done an incredible thing here. I’m so proud of you, of what you’ve done. You have gone above and beyond what we asked you to do.”
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