By Crystal Wylie
Register News Writer
Three new members of the fledgling Berea human rights commission joined the seven-person panel at Monday’s monthly meeting.
A Berea resident for more than six years, Jon Rogers will join the HRC for a three-year term.
Rogers works with the Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises (FAHE) as the vice-president and director of FAHE’s mortgage lending component.
Rogers also spent three years on the board of Home Energy Partners, a Berea-based non-profit that assists families with achieving energy-efficient housing.
“Like so many in Berea, I care about equal rights and human rights and the reasonable application of those rights to everyone and every entity in our community,” he said.
Retired pastor Carla Gilbert was asked to serve a three-year term on the commission. She is the associate chaplain for St. Joseph Berea hospital and has lived in Berea for seven years.
“I think it is important the HRC take a proactive stance to assure that all cases of discrimination are addressed and seen as important,” she said. “I want Berea to live up to its heritage of human rights.”
A familiar face will join the HRC to fill a one-year unexpired term. Former Berea City Council member Richard Bellando voted for the ordinance to form the HRC in Nov. 2011.
“I’m a big believer in volunteerism in city government,” he said. “I voted for the ordinance because I thought Berea, of all places, should be an example because of our heritage and history.”
Bellando graduated from Berea College in 1962 and returned to Berea in 1967 to become director of the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen. He moved on to be director of the Alumni Association at Berea College and then purchased Churchill Weavers with his wife in 1973.
Mayor Steve Connelly said he asked Bellando to join the commission because he will bring experience as a business person and as a former city council member.
Rogers was asked to join because of his strong business background and knowledge of problems citizens may encounter in lending and home occupancy, Connelly said. And Gilbert has “a deep interest in the area of civil rights.”
The three new commissioners will join HRC veterans Mae Suramek, Lisa Vaughn, Paula Dunson and Bryan Thomas.
Suramek is the HRC chairperson and executive director of the Bluegrass Rape Crisis Center in Lexington. She was the former director of alumni relations at Berea College and served on the Human Relations Committee in North Carolina.
In her blog “Plain Jane Activism: 365 Ways an Ordinary Gal Might Possibly Change the World,” Suramek welcomed the three new members — “all who have more than enough on their personal plates but are willing and eager to meet monthly (and often times more) to work towards a Berea where everyone is welcomed and treated equally.”
Vaughn was appointed to a three-year term. She is a Berea College graduate and owner of Gladiator Law Marketing, a company that builds websites for attorneys and law firms.
Dunson is a life-long Berea resident. She has served on the Berea Community School’s site-based council and on the board of directors for the Boys and Girls Club of Berea. She chairs the education ministry at Farristown Baptist Church.
Thomas is the co-owner of Sticks & Stones Landscape Supply in Berea. Thomas joined the HRC this summer to fill a vacant position, a decision that has “opened his eyes” to the need for human rights protection in this area, he said.
Thomas also is a life-long Berean who was born at the former Berea Hospital where he was delivered by former Mayor (and doctor) Clifford Kerby, he said.
As outlined by the ordinance that provided for the establishment of the commission, members are appointed by the mayor “on a non-partisan basis and shall be broadly representative of employers, proprietors, trade unions, human rights groups and the general public.”
The future of the Berea HRC
The HRC formed in Nov. 2011 following an incident in which vandals spray-painted racial slurs on two vehicles owned by a biracial couple. A group of citizens also were demanding the establishment of a fairness ordinance that would protect lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgendered (LGBT) citizens in the areas of employment, housing and public accommodation.
In a Nov. 11 Register article, Mayor Connelly said under federal and state law, members of the LGBT community are not established as a protected class, but the Kentucky human rights statute does allow localities, cities and counties, to decide independently whether they want to create this protected class.
That is one of the questions the HRC would answer through a community self-assessment, he said Monday.
A town assessment also would look at citizens’ knowledge of and compliance with civil rights protections pertaining to housing, lending, smoking, disability, race, family-size, etc.
Connelly, who also is a lawyer, said he had a client who was cited by the state HRC for a landlord violation, but the client was unaware that he was breaking any laws.
“Most of our citizens want to do what’s right,” he said. “They recognize that society does better when you stop at the red lights in the middle of the night when nobody is around to see you run it — obeying the rules helps the wagon roll better.”
Connelly said the HRC’s main job is to “educate citizens on rights and obligations under existing state and federal laws,” not enforcement.
Ideas are being formulated on how to collect data, he said, such as utilizing statistic or sociology students from Berea College or Eastern Kentucky University to administer a survey. A community-wide assessment would probably take more than a year to complete, he added.
The HRC also is working on being more visible and accessible to citizens.
They will soon unveil a new website; install drop boxes at city hall “and possibly other locations”; and will conduct forums to “have a presence in the community” so people will feel comfortable reaching out to the HRC for help, Connelly said.
“We want our town to great, and its citizens to be happy, comfortable, respected and successful,” the mayor said. “This is our opportunity to climb a level on the ladder – to build a better Berea.”
The Berea HRC meets on the first Monday of every month, 6 p.m., at City Hall in the community room.
Crystal Wylie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 623-1669, Ext. 6696.