Diversity, arts merger raises questions - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Diversity, arts merger raises questions

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Posted: Sunday, March 9, 2008 10:20 pm | Updated: 9:55 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Gilbert's volunteer diversity panel is facing a merger with the town's arts board - a situation that has some questioning whether the ability to respond to serious diversity issues will be harmed.

The Human Relations Commission was created about six years ago in the aftermath of the town's fight to quash a white supremacy gang known as the Devil Dogs.

Now, a Town Council subcommittee on boards and commission is studying how to deal with a shortage of volunteers for town advisory commissions, by merging some boards - and one suggestion is to combine the Human Relations Commission with the Arts Advisory Board.

Some argue the Human Relations Commission has morphed from reacting to a crisis into an educational board that plans diversity-focused events. They say a proposed merger with the town's Arts Advisory Board is only natural, since the arts board co-plans the town's Global Village Festival celebrating the arts and cultures.

The idea partially arose because both boards have trouble maintaining members, said Mayor Steve Berman, who serves on the council subcommittee with council members Linda Abbott and Les Presmyk.

"The problem with the HRC is, most of the things that they would be really concerned about are things that neither they nor the town have the authority to fix," Berman said, pointing out that federal law oversees many diversity rights. "Their scope of authority is limited, and, fortunately, there aren't (diversity) problems (in Gilbert)."

Some former members of the Human Relations Commission say they're concerned it could lose its influence as a place residents can file complaints.

"I don't think the arts should be hooked up with the commission," said Jules Cherry, who left the board late last year, along with former longtime chairwoman Tami Smull and others. "It's just two different categories."

During a recent meeting of the subcommittee, Smull expressed concerns the change would "obliterate" the commission's role in helping residents resolve diversity issues.

Vice Mayor Steve Urie said it may be the commission's chance to focus on even more events to help educate the community, something the group has been successful at doing.

The Town Council in the past has turned down proposals by the commission, including its advice to hire a diversity director, and for the town to accept matricula cards for Mexican residents living in Gilbert.

Both were turned down because, town officials said, they already have employees who ensure diversity among staff, and the town doesn't require ID anyway for the utilities it provides.

"I think maybe the focus and the mission may be changing," Urie said of the commission. "The concept was birthed because of the Devil Dogs - we wanted to see some hard-core rooting out of prejudice and racism. Perhaps a better way to approach it is to develop tolerance and understanding, to have more diversity exposure."

Human Relations Commission member Omar Hameed said he wants to learn more about the proposal, but wants to ensure the commission can remain effective. He recently helped bring another diversity event to town, a Pakistani kite festival planned for March 22.

"I would like the HRC to be an integral part of the (merged) commission, as it is now," he said. "We do a good job, bring a lot of good events, education. Any issues come up, people know there is an independent body they can go to that will listen to them and get their opinion to the mayor and Town Council to take action."

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