York City's Human Relations Commission is back in action


After a long period of dormancy, the City of York's Human Relations Commission is "willing and ready" to serve residents, said chairwoman Karen Rollins-Fitch on Monday.

"We want to let people know that we still exist," she said.

The commission is a board of volunteers that oversees a quasi-independent department charged with investigating allegations of discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations, as well as monitoring and reporting hate crimes and other civil tensions in the city.

When Stephanie Seaton was fired after an investigation in early 2013, the HRC lost not only its executive director but also its investigator. Seaton had been fulfilling the responsibilities of both positions.

Difficulties: From then until July 2014, the commission was effectively dormant — any complaints that came in had to be sent to the state HRC in Harrisburg.

For some residents without transportation, this was an obstacle to getting help with cases, said the commission's administrative intake support specialist, Johanna Ramirez.

"Some just said it wasn't worth the trouble," Ramirez said.

Others mailed or faxed paperwork to the Harrisburg office or traveled there to speak with an investigator. The commission provided assistance to those who needed help filling out and faxing or mailing forms.

Either way, there was a bigger delay for residents seeking the commission's help. The Harrisburg office has a larger workload, Ramirez said, so when people filed complaints there, "it would take a lot longer than if they filed them in the York office."

'Lost faith': When York's HRC lacked the staff to investigate complaints, "people lost faith and stopped coming," said Rollins-Fitch, a volunteer who also works as a site coordinator for Communities in Schools in the York City School District. "They stopped thinking it was an entity they could use."

Even now, more than a year after investigator Tonya Thompson-Morgan was hired, the commission, which also seeks to monitor bias situations and hate crimes, is receiving only about 15 to 25 complaints a month. Before the period of dormancy, it was getting 25 to 30.

Thompson-Morgan is still working through a backlog of complaints from the dormant period, said Rollins-Fitch.

"There were 15, and now there are only about four," she said. "We've made a huge dent."

How it works: When a resident comes in with a complaint, they first meet with Ramirez to complete an intake process. Then the investigator looks into the case.

"Usually, cases get resolved during the investigation process," Rollins-Fitch said. For example, if it's a case of employment discrimination, the person with the complaint might get their job back.

If that doesn't happen, Rollins-Fitch or another person acts as judge to determine how the case will be resolved.

The chairwoman said she's troubled that not many are coming to the commission for help.

"You hear enough about housing discrimination and things not going the way they should," she said. "People need to feel comfortable coming in again."