Photo by Danette M. Watt
Members of the new Community Relations Commission at the end of their initial meeting June 9: Mike Varner, Dr. Kenneth Spells, Peter Hough (Vice Chair), Ellar Duff, Jake Simmons, Megan Williams, Ben Golley (Chair), Jaida Moore, Cassandra Campbell (Secretary), Cindy Lolley and Greg Caffey.
ALTON — A commission formed years ago to deal with inequality and prejudice has been revived and restructured and had its first meeting June 9.
Members of the Community Relations Commission met at City Hall to fill key board positions and work out details on when, where and how the meetings will run.
The independent board is tasked with a list of duties designed to promote equality and justice, enhance Alton residents’ lives and promote communication between City Hall and citizens. Each quarter, the commission will report to the mayor and City Council any complaints brought before it, actions they took and recommendations it has for the city.
“It’s another way the city can be more user-friendly,” Mayor Brant Walker said in an interview several days later.
Previously known as the Human Rights Commission, the commission was established during the late Mayor Ed Voumard Jr.’s administration. Made up of members from 17 civic organizations, the HRC eventually buckled under its own weight and competing agendas. It was disbanded during the late Mayor Don Sandidge’s term.
“There were issues with getting a quorum or getting members involved,” city attorney Megan Williams said. “There were people who wanted to be on the HRC but couldn’t because they weren’t members of one of these civic organizations.”
The HRC had subpoena power that allowed it to get needed documents, but it also let them force people to appear before the commission.
“The CRC will not have subpoena power,” said Williams, and will have access to all public documents available to them through the Freedom of Information Act.
Walker said some residents might feel too intimidated to go to City Hall or the police department but they can “go to their peers if they have an issue.”
Matters of concern could be anything, from police matters to noisy neighbors and littering in parks.
“This is about more than race relations,” Walker said. “The commission was brought to my attention when I came into office, so we’d been working on this (for awhile).” But he acknowledged “the events in Ferguson put more urgency into it.”
Eight members of the community, with terms ranging from one to three years, will make up the board, along with the police chief, the city attorney and the director of development and housing.
The group didn’t take long to elect officers, then got down to business setting a regular meeting day and time and reviewing commission rules one by one.
About 30 minutes of discussion ended in a vote to adopt the rules as a whole. A clean copy of them will be posted on the city’s website.
Ben Golley, the board’s chair, said he wants to give people the opportunity to engage with the board.
“I want this commission to be different,” he said. “We want to make ourselves as accessible as possible.”
At the close of the meeting, Walker addressed the board, telling them their mission wouldn’t be easy.
“There will be a lot of difficult discussions and you’re courageous to — for lack of a better way to put it — put yourself in the line of fire.”
Before the first meeting adjourned, the CRC was smoothing ruffled feathers.
Joshua Young, who watched the proceedings, addressed the board during the public forum. He called the CRC’s decision to make Sunday afternoon its regular meeting time “highly unorthodox,” saying Sunday is a day for family and church.
“You’re starting off not looking after the best interests of the public,” he said.
When Young attempted to bring up incidents involving Alton police interactions with residents, retired Judge Ellar Duff stopped him.
“This commission isn’t the appropriate place to address certain issues until all protocols have been done,” she said. “Until police finish protocol, it’s improper for this commission to intervene.”
The two were referring to the Alton police officer who was seen on tape allegedly spraying two juveniles with a substance earlier this year and an Alton woman whose son was bitten by a police dog last fall.
When Young questioned who had been named to the board, he was told the commission reflected a diversity of age, ethnicity and area of residence. The mayor’s office received 25 to 30 applications and members were chosen based on their application, background and interviews.
Young isn’t the only one who questioned the makeup of the board. Community activist Abe Lee Barham said he isn’t happy either. He told AdVantage News several days after the CRC’s meeting that the board “has a value but doesn’t have the right people on it.”
“Ben Golley and Ken Spells are residents of Godfrey. I pay my taxes in Alton. I’m not going to go to Godfrey and tell them what to do.”
Golley owns Today’s Beauty Supply on Central Avenue and Spells is the Alton School District superintendent. Barham acknowledged the two interact with the community daily.
He also said Duff, a retired judge, is a problem.
“She’s fined people and sent them to jail,” he said. “There is no civil rights representative (on the board) on behalf of black community.”
Barham said he felt slighted, citing his work in the community.
“I helped the mayor get in office,” he said. “Next time he runs, I’ll work to get him out.”
Walker said Spells will be dealing with issues that may affect students and Golley has had his business in Alton for years and has invested in the community.
“Choosing the board members was a tough decision,” Walker said. “Lee Barham is a good activist and I like him.”
Golley said the board’s diversity showed the city cared and stressed that they all had the same goals and wanted to make a difference. But he cautioned that nothing could be solved in one night.
“We’re going to do the best we can to address issues and want to figure out solutions but can’t do it in one night.”
Where: City Council Chambers, 101 E. Third St., Alton
When: Second Sunday of each month
Time: 3 p.m.
To read the purpose and duties of the Community Relations Commission, access agendas and contact the city attorney, visit http://www.alton-il.com/councilminutes.cfm.
Ben Golley, owner of Today’s Beauty Supply (Chair)
Peter Hough, pastor (Vice Chair)
Cassandra Campbell, former director of finance and operations at a public charter school in St. Louis (Secretary)
Greg Caffey, director of Development and Housing
Ellar Duff, retired judge
Cindy Lolley, retired from Department of Children & Family Services
Jaida Moore, coach and teacher in Alton School District
Jake Simmons, Alton police chief
Dr. Kenneth Spells, Alton school district superintendent
Mike Varner, retired teacher
Megan Williams, Alton city attorney
Key points about meetings
Agendas will be posted on the city website by 3 p.m. the Friday before the CRC meets.
You must notify the city attorney or CRC secretary by noon the Sunday the CRC meets if you want to speak on a matter before a vote is taken on it.
If you don’t make the deadline to comment on a particular issue before the vote, you still can speak during the public forum portion just before the meeting adjourns.
A member of the community can speak just once per meeting and all speakers are limited to five minutes.