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United Way of Lancaster County


Bill would merge Lancaster’s Human Relations Commission, HRC Advisory Council

(Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Lancaster City Council will consider legislation this month to combine the city’s Human Relations Commission and the Human Relations Commission Advisory Council into a single entity.

It’s been several years since the commission last fielded a complaint to investigate, Mayor Danene Sorace told council members at their committee meeting Monday; and without work to pursue, interest in serving on it has waned.

At present, the mayor said, there are just three people on the commission, which is supposed to have a roster of five members and two alternates; the Advisory Council has only four of its 13 positions filled.

“There’s just been a lot of attrition,” she said.

The Human Relations Commission is charged with enforcing the city’s human relations ordinance, which broadly bars discrimination of any form in employment, housing or real estate, education and public accommodation — spaces and services made available to the public at large. The Advisory Commission supplements the commission’s work by providing education to promote good human relations and prevent discriminatory practices.

Under the bill City Council is considering, the Human Relation Commission would absorb the Advisory Council and add its duties to its own. The four existing Advisory Council members would become commission members, serving out the terms for which they were appointed previously.

“I do think this is a great move,” said City Councilman Ahmed Ahmed, a refugee advocate and former refugee who previously served on the Advisory Council.

The merger would simplify the commission’s structure, and “should help strengthen the commission as a whole,” acting Human Relations Commission Chair Mark Stoner said.

The draft bill provided to City Council on Monday does not yet specify the minimum and maximum number of members the commission would have. That can be decided during the bill’s first reading at council’s April 9 meeting, Sorace said. Council would vote on the bill at its second regular monthly meeting on April 23.

About the commission

The Human Relations Commission traces its history to the Lancaster City-County Human Relations Committee, which was formed in December 1964.

According to an LNP article about the commission’s 50th anniversary, the joint city-county entity operated until 1991. Things then reached an impasse when City Council voted to extend its human relations ordinance to LGBTQ+ individuals and unmarried couples living together.

“Two county commissioners opposed protecting homosexuals on moral grounds and the third wasn’t sure the city had the legal authority to extend protections,” the newspaper said. So the county split from the city and formed its own human relations commission.

That left the city without an organization to enforce its ordinance until it formed its own commission in 2001. The county disbanded its commission in 2010.

Lancaster’s Human Relations Commission has broad powers, including the capability to investigate complaints, subpoena witnesses, hold hearings and hear testimony under oath. It can issue orders to enforce the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance, and individuals can be taken to court and fined or jailed if found in violation.

It is not, however, a resident’s only recourse in discrimination cases. State and federal civil rights laws and fair housing laws offer strong protections, with redress available through the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, the federal Office of Fair Housing & Equal Opportunity and Office of Civil Rights and state and federal courts. That likely accounts for the paucity of cases brought to the commission.

Looking ahead, Sorace said she expects the revamped commission will end up focusing primarily on education; but it will remain “at the ready” to respond vigorously if and when complaints come forward.

(Editor’s Note: This article was updated April 5 to add acting Human Relations Commission Chair Mark Stoner’s comment.)