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Officials reviving human rights commission

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By Walt Reichert

Officials from the county's three governments plan to resuscitate a local human rights commission that has been inactive for more than a decade.

Shelby County Judge-Executive Rob Rothenburger, Shelbyville Mayor Tom Hardesty and Simpsonville Mayor Steve Eden said they will appoint members to a human rights commission board that will serve as a local adjunct of the Kentucky Human Rights Commission. The state rights commission is charged with enforcing the state's Civil Rights Act, which forbids discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.

This local board would serve as a clearinghouse for information and questions on discrimination issues and make sure complaints are legitimate before passing them on to the state rights commission for investigation, Hardesty said. He also said the local board would have no budget or authority to investigate complaints on its own.

Rothenburger said he sees the purpose of the local board as serving as "conduit for information and education to local residents" and handle issues of discrimination or perceived discrimination "before they become problems in the community."

The three governments established a human rights commission in the 1980s, but in the late 1990s they stopped making appointments to it, Hardesty said.

"It just fell by the wayside," he said. "I'm not sure if it was because there was nothing for them to do - that they didn't get any complaints -- or what."

The officials said plans for the new board have nothing to do with a sudden increase in discrimination complaints. They said the idea of reviving the board came after a meeting with Glenda Green of the Kentucky Human Rights Commission, based in Louisville.

Green said the commission's new director, John J. Johnson, has a vision of establishing local human-rights commissions in every county of the state.

The state currently has 21 active commissions, she said, and Green said Johnson would like to see rights commissions in Kentucky's remaining 99 counties.

"A local commission is in a better position to assist the state commission on the local level." Green said. "Residents feel more familiarity dealing with their neighbors and feel their voices will be heard."

Because the local governments already have ordinances in place establishing the commission, getting a local commission up and running merely requires their leaders to appoint new members, who have to be ratified by the respective governmental bodies and sworn in.

Rothenburger will name five members to the board to represent the county, Hardesty will name four members from the city of Shelbyville, and Eden will name two members from Simpsonville. The board members will choose their chair after they are sworn in.

The officials said they hope to have board members named and chosen by December and the commission sworn in by January 2009.