The Billings Human Relations Commission needs to replenish its ranks. Three of nine commission seats are vacant, and Mayor Bill Cole is accepting applications for this city council advisory board through Friday.
The commission barely had a quorum of five at its last monthly meeting with just one member absent. Along with the five unpaid, appointed commission members, three city council members attended: Brent Cromley, Penny Ronning and Mike Yakawich. Their attendance is important, because, like all other city council boards and commissions, this one’s purpose is to inform and advise the council; it cannot change city policy on its own.
The March 2 meeting lasted slightly more than an hour, including a presentation from Kassie Runs Above, who coordinates the cultural liaison program at St. Vincent Healthcare. At the commission’s December meeting, members of the public discussed complaints that homeless Native Americans have been discriminated against in local services. Representatives of the Montana Human Rights Network suggested that the commission study how Billings organizations work on cultural sensitivity and inclusiveness.
In February, Police Chief Rich St. John discussed recent incidents of graffiti that incorporated pornography, swastika, KKK and 666 and his department’s efforts to investigate these crimes.
Members of the Human Rights Commission talked about the best ways to raise community awareness. They don’t provide direct services to people who are subject to discrimination, but the commission provides a welcoming forum to listen to concerns. The commission has in the past helped publicize discrimination and worked to engage the community in solutions.
After the spate of hateful messages and the vandalism of property at a Billings church, our city needs the Human Rights Commission more than ever. Our growing, diverse city needs a safe, public venue for confronting incidents of discrimination and policies that fail to discourage discrimination.
As stated on the city website: “The purpose of the City of Billings Human Relations Commission is to promote mutual understanding and respect among all racial, nationality and minority groups and work to discourage and prevent discriminatory practices against any such group.”
That mission has historically attracted a wonderfully diverse group of Billings residents to serve on the commission. At present, the six members include two men and four women. Although small in number, they bring a variety of religious, ethnic, cultural and professional backgrounds to the table. Meetings are held the first Thursday of each month at 12:15 p.m. in the City Hall conference room.
The seats now vacant include terms of one year, two years and four years. Asked who should volunteer, Human Relations Commission members offered these thoughts:
“Anybody passionate about human relations,” said commission member Lita Pepion.
“People from different groups should have a way to have a voice,” said Amaya Garcia, commission secretary. She noted that the LGBTQ community isn’t currently represented on the commission.
“People with different abilities, different disabilities, different immigration status” should be represented, said Tajin Perez, interim commission chairman. “We need to have a balanced view of people in this community.”
The Billings City Council in December refused to approve one of Mayor Tom Hanel’s nominees, former Councilman Ken Crouch, to the Human Rights Commission. With the resignation of two members for health reasons, the commission is in dire need of three more active members committed to its noble purpose.
The commission isn’t the only city advisory board in need of volunteers. Check the box at right to see all the volunteer opportunities, consider how you can serve, and apply no later than Friday.