Lawmaker seeks oversight of Human Rights Commission appointees

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(Host) Governor Jim Douglas’ decision to replace the only African-American member of Vermont’s Human Rights Commission is prompting a Vermont lawmaker to call for future Senate approval on commission appointments.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb reports.

(Wertlieb) Kevin Christie wanted to be re-appointed to Vermont’s Human Rights Commission and wrote a letter expressing that desire to Governor Douglas in May of last year, one month before Christie’s term on the state panel was set to expire.

He didn’t hear from the governor until receiving a letter in June stating that he would be replaced, with no further explanation.

(Christie) “It basically said, I want to thank you for your service to the state of Vermont; I hope you, you know, had a personally rewarding experience.’ I was very surprised, and felt rejected.”

(Wertlieb) As the only African-American on the five-person panel that hears complaints of discrimination and possible civil rights violations in the state, Christie says he felt his role was an essential one:

(Christie) “What I brought to the commission was a perspective of living the life of an Afro-American in Vermont on a day to day basis. I think if someone of color is on the board, that particular perspective can be shared and the work can be continued, you know, in a very positive way.”

(Wertlieb) Governor Douglas replaced Christie with Barbara Prentice, a white attorney from Montpelier. A caller to VPR’s recent Switchboard program with the governor asked Douglas how he could justify the move:

(Douglas) “Well, obviously I’ve made a number of changes in many panels since assuming office, appointing new people to positions of responsibility both on boards and commissions and in full time positions in state government. I want my own team and have done that in many cases. I really believe that the five individuals who are serving on the Human Rights Commission are very sensitive, compassionate and fair individuals who will make the appropriate judgments about any civil rights complaints that come before the commission.”

(Wertlieb) But Senator John Campbell, a Windsor County Democrat, says the failure to re-appoint Christie should have more serious consequences because Christie was the board’s lone African-American and because he had received recommendations to be re-instated from everyone on the board, including its executive director.

(Campbell) “It’s a slap in his face and a slap in the face of Vermonters. I was very disturbed and I think this calls for a situation where I think any type of new appointment should in fact be confirmed by the Senate to provide some kind of oversight. Because someone dropped the ball on this one and I think it’s the governor.”

(Wertlieb) Douglas administration spokesman Jason Gibbs says the governor doesn’t choose board members based on race and that change is part of the process.

(Gibbs) “No one, regardless of the experience they’ve had on one board or commission, good or bad, is entitled to serve on it indefinitely. In fact the reason the board and commission system exists is so that ordinary residents of Vermont who might not want to run for public office can have an opportunity to serve their state. We certainly would be open to Senator Campbell’s proposal and look forward to discussing it.”

(Wertlieb) Another position is going to open up on the Human Rights Commission at the end of July. While he can’t say for sure if race will weigh into Douglas’ decision regarding who gets the appointment, Gibbs also says the governor wouldn’t rule it out because he has a strong, working relationship with Vermont’s African-American community.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Mitch Wertlieb.

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