September 5, 2018

Civil Rights Commission Seeks Improvements

By Donald Gilpin

A Princeton Council subcommittee last week offered its recommendations for upgrading Princeton’s Civil Rights Commission (CRC), an advisory body without investigatory or enforcement authority that has recently been the source of controversy and the target of charges of “dysfunction.”

Recommendations of the committee included a more streamlined and clear conflict resolution process, an upgrade of the orientation process for new commission members, and improvement of communications and opportunities for commissioners to get to know each other.

A proposal to rename the commission — from “civil rights commission” to “commission on civil rights” — in order to clarify its role was also presented, but after discussion among Council members and the public, that recommendation was apparently tabled. By state law, Princeton’s CRC, which was originally established 50 years ago and re-established two years ago after a 20-year hiatus, has never had the power to investigate or enforce.

The CRC’s voluntary, non-binding conflict resolution committee was put on hold in February 2018, pending review and clarification by the subcommittee charged with considering “changes to the establishing ordinance and procedures that will allow the commission to better achieve its objectives.” The subcommittee includes Council members Lance Liverman, a former member of the CRC; Leticia Fraga, 2017 CRC chair; and Tim Quinn, Council liaison to the CRC.

Fraga emphasized the importance of the subcommittee’s efforts, particularly the clarification and streamlining of the conflict resolution process. “I have confidence that when the process is complete, the CRC will soon again be able to provide assistance to individuals who believe their rights may have been violated, through a facilitated conflict resolution process,” she wrote in an email after last week’s meeting.

She continued, “As progressive and welcoming as Princeton is, we cannot overlook that there may be occasional incidents that may cause an individual to have a very different experience. The white nationalist flyers that continue to appear in our community highlight the need for us to continue the work of the CRC, including outreach and education.”

Acknowledging the limitations of the CRC, she added, “the CRC’s conflict resolution process may not always be the best process for all aggrieved individuals, but they can at the very least become informed as to what other options exist.”

Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert stated that the CRC will meet on September 18, after which the Council subcommittee will review their recommendations and bring back to the full Council proposals to be acted upon. Lempert observed that the conversation and the process involved could be “a little dry and procedural,” but she emphasized, “At the end of the day this is about how we treat each other and the kind of community we want to live in. The work of the CRC is so important for ensuring that we’re working every day towards creating the community that we all feel respected in and want to live in.”

In a written statement delivered at last week’s meeting, Liverman highlighted the important role of the CRC “to make sure that every resident of Princeton is treated fairly and with respect.”

Providing historical perspective on the Princeton CRC, which was created in 1968 by a group of concerned citizens, CRC member Tommy Parker noted that it “was one of the greatest initiatives of any community in New Jersey. It put Princeton on the map as a leader. Princeton jumped out in front. We need to remember that legacy and act on it.” He added that the CRC is already working on the Council committee’s recommendations. “We’re moving and we’re on top of it,” he said.

At last week’s session, Leighton Newlin urged the Council and CRC not to slow the progress on civil rights issues in Princeton, warning, “Princeton has a long history that is rather ugly, and it has its share of implicit bias. This body needs to be able to impact policy. We need to continue forward.”