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Human rights commission in Cedar Falls split on what role should be in city, mayor says
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Human rights commission in Cedar Falls split on what role should be in city, mayor says

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Cedar Falls Council work session Sept. 8, 2020

Jennifer Rodenbeck, director of finance and business operations with the city of Cedar Falls, presents her office's recommendations on revising the city code to update the role of the city's human rights commission during a Sept. 8, 2020 city council work session.

CEDAR FALLS — Members are split over whether the Human Rights Commission should investigate complaints or focus on education and advocacy.

Commissioners detailed their opposing views in a letter to Mayor Rob Green, Green told the City Council during a Tuesday work session.

“There is some discord within the Human Rights Commission about what their responsibilities are supposed to be,” Green said. “It’s reached a point where it does need to have action taken in the near term to avoid future problems.”

The commission — a nine-member board with two current vacancies — is mandatory for cities of more than 29,000 people under Iowa law, said Jennifer Rodenbeck, director of finance and business operations.

Its primary responsibilities under city code are to investigate complaints by residents facing unlawful discrimination and to educate the public to prevent such discrimination.

But the panel gets just five to 10 calls per year and an average of one formal complaint per year.

Other cities of Cedar Falls’ size either hire paid staff, rather than volunteer commissioners, to investigate complaints or forward them to the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, said Rodenbeck, noting staff recommended the latter.

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“They have professional staff investigating the complaints,” she said of the ICRC. It costs the city nothing to forward complaints, and state staff is better trained to handle them.

Using the state also would avoid conflicts of interest.

Some commissioners want to focus more on community outreach and business training. But others want to refocus their mission.

“There are commissioners that very much want to be in the investigative role, and they’re frustrated the city has not given them training,” Green said.

Ward 1 council member Mark Miller asked why the city didn’t offer such training. Rodenbeck cited cost, turnover of members and the small number of complaints.

“You can’t find another community in Iowa where the commissioners (investigate),” she said. “If you don’t do them very often, you kind of lose that training.”

Council members will schedule a joint work session with the commission to discuss the issues and whether to change the commission’s role.

“I don’t know that we fully understand some of the issues that they’re facing, and I don’t really want to punt on this issue considering what’s going on in the country,” Miller said. “Clearly, we need to be paying attention to this in Cedar Falls, Iowa.”

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