Dover Human Relations Commission eyes greater responsibilities, broader presence

DOVER — David Anderson, Gerald Rocha Sr. and Roy Sudler Jr. each served on the city of Dover’s Human Relations Commission prior to being voted into their current roles as city councilmen.

So, they know first-hand the inner workings of the Human Relations Commission and are working to make some changes and enhancements that would give the commission a greater role in helping to bridge the gap when it comes to racial relations in Dover.

The trio of councilman introduced an action plan before the Council Committee of the Whole’s Legislative and Finance Committee virtual meeting last Tuesday night that would restore the use of an intake form to receive grievances between individuals and groups involved in conflict and would allow commission members to participate in non-binding mediation, giving it a greater role in calming racial tensions through more active community involvement.

The motion to give the Human Relations Commission greater authority passed with all “yes” votes, although City Councilman Tim Slavin was absent from the meeting. It will next be voted on by full city council but will be kept off the consent agenda to allow Mr. Slavin a chance to respond if he chooses.

“The intake form and hearing process was removed (in 2014) and now the intake form, fact-finding process is reinstated for the mediation process,” Councilman Sudler said. “The mediation process allows opposing parties to voluntarily discuss a dispute and the mediator reflects the concerns of both parties in an effort to facilitate amicable relations that allow both parties to agree or disagree respectfully and move forward.

“David Anderson, along with Gerald Rocha Sr., were also former members of the commission and were very influential in preparing this initiative to move forward to council. I am very thankful and humbled that the Council Committee as a Whole deemed it necessary to move this forward.”

Lachelle Paul, a member of Delaware’s NAACP, served as a community advocate in giving the Human Relations Commission greater responsibilities.

“It’s important to preserve for the community to know and to understand that even with the continued racially tense issues that we have that are not just in the city of Dover, but all over this country,” Ms. Paul said.

She hopes the commission’s added responsibilities will get even more minorities involved in city government. There are currently two vacancies, one in the 2nd District and another in the 4th District, listed out of nine members on the commission.

“You have a black community that it’s not so much that they’re not engaged, they fear to engage in any type of activity just because of the way that they are being treated,” said Ms. Paul. “Some of these things could actually be addressed and the community could actually become a part of helping to bridge the gap, so that we can work on things that are actually very much more important than the continuous racial tension that we’re seeing basically on a daily basis.

“At some point you have to go forward and figure out how you can bridge this gap, and this (Human Relations Commission) is one of the things that you’ve already put in place. Why not go through and fix it and utilize it? We have to get to a point where we can work together.”

The proposed changes would also give Human Relations Commission members an opportunity to attend mediation training.

“Sometimes with two parties there is tension. One person has an argument and the other person has their argument, and the mediator respects both of the arguments and helps the two parties to voluntarily come to a written agreement which is non-binding. It works,” Councilman Sudler said. “It gives people the opportunity to vent and get things out.

“It usually reduces the tension between both parties and both parties end up having something in writing, saying, ‘OK, you agree to do this moving forward,’ and ‘I agree to do this moving forward,’ and if that agreement is broken they can go back to the mediator.”

He added, “It’s not binding, so there are no legal implications for this that I can see, and I just think it’s a great tool for the community to have as a way in decreasing any type of tension. The primary aim of the Human Relations Commission is to reduce any type of racial tension in the city of Dover.”

Councilman Rocha, who was recently chair of the commission before being elected to council, believes its members are more than capable of handling the added responsibilities.

“In my experience I believe we do need an intake form and we also need to be champions for the commission so that the awareness of issues in our city can be addressed by the commission,” he said. “The commission is very capable and some of us have already had mediation training that was scheduled about a year ago, but they probably could go through another round of training for new members.

“I believe that we need to fill the seats for the other districts so that we have representation from each district. I’m in full support of moving this forward. Everyone wants fairness and respect and the commission is available to develop and promote an environment of fairness and respect among its citizens. Why wouldn’t we want to keep that?”

The Human Relations Commission has developed a broad strategic plan for 2020-’23, which includes objectives such as promoting and developing an environment of fairness and respect among the city’s citizens and finding ways to measure and monitor community relations, particularly those that are sources of intergroup conflict.

They have also challenged themselves with identifying, supporting and participating in and creating programs and events within the city that celebrate its diversity and promote greater understanding of issues, concerns and needs of its diverse population.
Councilman Lindell said those kinds of active roles in the community could be more valuable to the commission, rather than participating in mediation.

“The idea of interviewing people, making surveys available, creating focus groups on diversity, I think those are the types of things I’d like to see the commission focus on,” said Mr. Lindell. “A part of the issue is we have a lot of great people on that committee, but we need to provide them with the training.

“We can debate mediation one way or the other, but I think putting on different types of events and getting out into the public and meeting the people where they are and have those types of discussions that are needed. I think we do have a role to empower, but I want to make sure that we’re doing it (right).”

Councilman Sudler responded that the proposed changes are basically “first steps forward” that need to take place now.

“We do need to get it right and I think part of getting it right is taking the first step,” said Mr. Sudler. “I think this is a great first step in getting our commission’s training and getting our community members what they have asked for, versus what we (council) would like to see. This is an echo from what we heard from our constituents.

“I think we can take this first step forward without any delay, because I think the community needs it.”

Councilman Fred Neil supported Mr. Sudler’s comments.

“We have to start now,” said Mr. Neil. “We do it now and you can enhance later. You can enhance continuously. This commission can help us spread the word that we’re doing things right.”

When the final vote took place moments later, all the members of the Legislative and Finance Committee supported it, including Councilman Lindell.

“It was a great accomplishment for, first and foremost, the constituents of Dover and primarily for this great city of Dover and their council representatives,” Mr. Sudler said.