CORRECTION: This story, as originally published, contained a significant error. You can read more about that mistake here: http://www.siouxcityjournal.com/news/opinion/columnists/article_c7b75188-dbf8-588f-a5ba-c038d448cf53.html"> http://www.siouxcityjournal.com/news/opinion/columnists/article_c7b75188-dbf8-588f-a5ba-c038d448cf53.html
In order to accurately portray the facts as we now know them, this story has been recast and edited to reflect the necessary corrections. One quotes was removed because the person being quoted was responding to inaccurate information provided by the Journal. The edited version of the story is below:
SIOUX CITY -- A six-person conservative Christian voting bloc on the Human Rights Commission, critics say, has muzzled the discussion of gay rights issues and orchestrated a witch hunt designed to oust the commission’s director.
The issue came to a head Monday night when the council voted 3-2 -- despite objections from former commission members -- to appoint Christy Conrad to the commission.
Conrad, a member of the conservative Cornerstone World Outreach church, has been openly critical of the commission’s actions and wrote a letter to commission director Karen Mackey in which she suggested Mackey, an enrolled member of the Santee-Dakota Nation, should "walk a mile in another’s moccasins."
Jim Jung, a Sioux City resident and chairman of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, said he was "appalled" by the tone of Monday’s meeting.
"There is something wrong here, and the council majority seems to be in chaos and confusion," Jung said. "We're talking about everybody's rights here."
Four of the commission's 11 members attend Cornerstone World Outreach. One previously attended Cornerstone. One member is Jewish, two belong to Mount Zion Baptist Church and one goes to St. Paul's Indian Mission. Two members have no church affiliation.
The council has named 10 of those 11 members since 2007. The council appointed two people this year to the commission -- Susan Barta and Conrad. The council voted 3-2 on Barta's and Conrad's appointments.
Having so many members thinking alike "hurts the legitimacy of their rulings," Mayor Mike Hobart said Friday.
Councilman Tom Padgett, noting that religion is one of the protected classes served by the commission, said, "If I were a Jew or a Muslim, I would wonder if I would get a fair hearing from a solid group of Christians."
Councilman Keith Radig, however, said he wants people on the commission "who are willing to ask questions," noting that during the candidate interviews, the mayor asks them if they know the position's responsibilities.
Several members of the city's Human Rights Commission, particularly those involved in the voting bloc, said they are doing their job and don't make decisions based on their religious affiliation.
"As long as the commission is doing its job and abiding by the law, that's all that should matter," commission member Art Figueroa said. "You are questioning my integrity, and I feel I'm being discriminated against because of my beliefs."
Former and current commission members not involved in the voting bloc, however, paint a different picture.
‘YOU KNEW YOU COULDN’T TALK’
According to some former members of the commission, the tone of the commission has changed dramatically since the formation of the six-member voting bloc.
That bloc has been in place since 2008.
Former commissioner Sherry Flansburg, who is Jewish, took her concerns to the council Monday, as did Judie Campbell, who served six years before her term expired in 2008. In interviews last week, Campbell and Flansburg both said conservative Christians on the commission were intolerant of certain viewpoints and were imposing their will on the group.
"We had gotten to the point there were just certain things you knew you couldn't talk about at meetings," said Flansburg, who was chairman until her term ended June 30. "We never discussed gay-lesbian rights and sexual orientation, for example."
Campbell said the growing conservative Christian influence on the board was disconcerting. She said no discussion of same-sex marriage or gay and transgender rights was tolerated.
"It certainly came across in their discussions," said Campbell, a member of Peace Reformed Church. "Same-sex marriage came up and they were definitely not in favor of that."
Perhaps more alarming, former members and other observers contend, is what they see as a coordinated effort to remove executive director Karen Mackey. Mackey did not return several phone calls and messages seeking comment.
A number of people, including former Councilman Jim Rixner, Flansburg, Campbell and others who declined to be identified, contend the ultimate goal of the Christian conservatives on the commission is to get rid of Mackey, whom the commission hired to be director in 2004. None of the 2004 members remains on the commission.
At the time, the City Council hailed Mackey's appointment, noting she is an attorney and an enrolled member of the Santee-Dakota Nation. In 2008, she was named a woman of excellence by the agency Women Aware in the category of Women Taking Risks.
Under city code, the commission can hire and fire a director with a simple majority vote. Current commissioner Larenzo Chavis said, "I don't know why they would want to do that."
However, Figueroa said Mackey’s dismissal could be discussed because of a “personnel issue” that stems from an advertisement placed in the Journal on the topic of racial discrimination that the commission didn't like.
Ike Rayford, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer whose appointment is through the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, said he developed the advertisement as part of a new marketing campaign to inform anyone who might have faced discrimination that they should contact the human rights office.
The ad’s headline read, "You're not white enough for the job?" The intent, Rayford said, was to generate dialogue about race relations. Some commission members, however, were angered and offended by the ad.
Bridey Hayes, the city's human resources director, retained an outside attorney to conduct a probe into the matter. Her report was discussed in closed session at last month's City Council meeting.
The commission has scheduled another meeting on the personnel issue at 11 a.m. Tuesday at City Hall. Figueroa said he believes the controversy over Conrad’s appointment is designed to deflect attention from Mackey’s alleged transgressions.
"I think all this is a distraction that has to do with the investigation that is going on and diverting the attention from the real issue, which is the ad and the allegations that have been brought up," Figueroa said.
The commission has the final say in hiring and firing a director. The City Council only confirms the appointment of a director.
Acceptable reasons for dismissing the director, according to city code, include "for misdemeanor, incompetency, inattention to duty or failure to obey the policies of the commission."
Disagreements over the role of the Human Rights Commission have a long history in Sioux City.
Last year, the City Council added the protected class of "sexual orientation and gender identity" only after the Iowa Legislature added those classes to the law.
In 1998 and 2004, city lawmakers decided not to make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of a person's sexual orientation. Both times, the Human Rights Commission brought the issue to the council.
The debate each time was controversial -- both from those testifying and among the council members. Much of the debate in 2004 centered on the notion that adding sexual orientation to city code was part of the so-called "gay agenda," promoting gay marriage.
Before the Iowa Supreme Court ruled on the legality of same-sex marriage in April 2009, One Iowa, a gay and lesbian advocacy group, staged marriage equity forums around the state. The organization asked local human rights commissions to co-sponsor the meetings. One Iowa reserved a room at the Wilbur Aalfs Library in late 2008.
The Sioux City Human Rights Commission eventually voted 7-3 not to participate in that forum because many of the Christian commissioners do not approve of gay marriage, Flansburg said. Many of those members blamed Mackey for even asking them about the co-sponsorship proposal.
"Karen did not bring it up," Flansburg said. "She just presented the proposal from One Iowa."
Also in 2008, another controversy erupted over the selection of the recipient of the annual War Eagle Human Rights Award.
A Human Rights Commission subcommittee recommended the award be presented to Marge Stanek, a longtime leader in the local pro-life effort. The commission majority, with Mackey's support, concluded the rights of fetuses fell outside the purview of the commission.
On Feb. 3, 2009, the City Council adopted a resolution by a 3-2 vote supporting the legal description of marriage as between one man and one woman.
Figueroa addressed the council about his concerns over homosexuality and the impact same-sex marriages would have on small business owners. He owns A-1 Preferred, a duct cleaning company.
"That means that five or 10 years down the road I might be forced to insure many multiple partners. ... Like it or not, the homosexual community is (a) very high health risk,” Figueroa said. "... Do we want to see this great nation come to rubbish and cease to exist for the sake of a few? What's next in 30 years? Polygamy wide open? A man wanting to marry a 10-year-old girl? Two men wanting to marry three men? Or two or three women for that fact?"
Figueroa maintains those comments were not inappropriate given his role on the commission.
"You are making the assumption that because I don't agree with that lifestyle, that will compromise me (on the commission)," he said Thursday. "One of the things (the commission) stands for in a universal way is no one should be discriminated against due to their creed or religion."
STRIKING A BALANCE
Former Councilman Jim Rixner, who lost his 2009 re-election bid, said it is difficult to quantify the influence of the Christian conservatives on the commission.
Rixner applied to serve on the commission, but his application was never voted on in public. Instead, he was ruled out during a series of private phone calls between each councilman and an assistant city clerk who prepares the council's weekly agendas. (See related story on A1.)
"Anybody serving on the commission must have an absolute, unequivocal commitment to the human rights of all people," Rixner said. "If anyone on that commission lacks that commitment, then they should not be on there. If they have an agenda, they should resign."
By law, former Councilman Brent Hoffman said, the city cannot ask applicants for any of the city's 30 boards and commissions their religious status.
"That question in and of itself is unfair," Hoffman said.
Former Human Rights Director Dick Hayes said it is the council's responsibility to find out if the applicants know that their role is to protect everyone in the protected classes defined by state and city law.
Councilman Aaron Rochester, also a Cornerstone member, said citizens "shouldn't be discriminated against on where they go to church. ... It's inappropriate for people to track down where people go to church.”
Rixner said the issue is whether their personal beliefs influence how they will vote on cases or programs.
"You can ask them what their values are. You can't ask their religion," Rixner said.
Hayes, who served as the commission's executive director until his retirement in 2004, said he doesn't recall any voting blocs among Human Rights Commission members during his tenure as director and, before that, as a commissioner.
"You need a diverse membership," Hayes said. "If you've got six out of that group all acting and thinking alike, then you've got a problem and the director has a big headache."