Princeton Civil Rights Commission report to be presented Monday night

One of the top recommendations of a task force that reviewed the role of the town of Princeton’s civil rights commission is to change the name from “civil rights commission” to “commission on civil rights.”

The governing body for the municipality put the commission’s voluntary dispute mediation on hold in February after a civil rights complaint was leaked to the press. It has taken more than six months for a task force to come up with recommendations to revamp the commission.

Under state statute, municipalities can create advisory local civil rights commissions to “foster through community effort or otherwise, good will, cooperation and conciliation among the groups and elements of the inhabitants of the community, and they may be empowered by the local governing bodies to make recommendations to them for the development of policies and procedures in general and for programs of formal and informal education that will aid in eliminating all types of discrimination based on race, creed, color, national origin, ancestry, age, marital status,
affectional or sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, familial status, disability, nationality or sex.”

According to the report that is slated to be reviewed Monday night, Princeton Council President Jenny Crumiller and other officials believe the name of the commission causes confusion among members of the public. Officials argue that the name “civil rights commission” leads people to believe the commission actually has enforcement and investigatory powers. Under state law, the commission does not. The commission can advise the governing body about issues and make recommendations for establishing anti-bias programs in the community. Unlike most other communities in the state that have a civil rights commission, the commission in Princeton also offers voluntary, non-binding conflict resolution to residents. But the commission has no teeth in terms of enforcement.

Almost all of the other municipal civil rights commissions in the state are called “civil rights commission,” but officials in Princeton argue that the name change to “commission on civil rights” will eliminate the confusion about the commission’s powers and make the name consistent with language in the state law allowing for the creation of commissions. How the name change makes the role clear is still unclear to some critics. It is also unclear whether the municipality would then change the names of any other municipal commissions to “commission on” if the recommendation is approved.

A second recommendation of the task force is to revamp the orientation process for new commission members, emphasizing that the commission is not a quasi-judiciary or investigatory body, but an advisory group that offers community members a way to resolve disputes outside of formal processes. New commissioners would be required to attend an orientation session with the municipal attorney, municipal administrator, council liaison to the commission, and chair or vice chair of the commission to review the ordinance for the commission. The orientation would be done in the annual closed session with the town administrator and lawyer. It is unclear from the document how such an orientation session can be private under the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.

The third recommendation is to improve communications and provide opportunities for commissioners to better get to know each other: The task force recommended that the commission hold a retreat each year led by an outside party and hold “study circles” for commission members about topics of interest to the commission.

A fourth recommendation is to clarify the commission’s conflict resolution function, stressing that conflict resolution is voluntary and non-binding.

” Since both sides must agree to participate and because the process seeks to reach an amicable solution, as opposed to a formal decision, the language related to the conflict resolution process should be improved to differentiate it from actual legal and administrative tools, including mediation and investigation of a complaint by the state Attorney General’s Office Division of Civil Rights,” reads the report.

Instead of having a subcommittee of the commission mediate disputes as was done last year, all commissioners would be allowed to participate in the non-binding conflict resolution. Commissioners would receive training in conflict resolution from the New Jersey Division of
Civil Rights or another third-party provider. As matters are referred to the commission, the chair, in consultation with the vice chair and secretary, would select a team of four commissioners to hear the matter based on the expertise and availability of commissioners.

Materials provided to people who file complaints for conflict resolution would stress that documents filed in the process are available if requested through the state’s Open Public Records Act. But a document would also inform people who file complaints that the conflict resolution meeting itself is private and confidential “and works best when it is not preceded by publicity.”

“The purpose of the dialog is to reach a mutually agreed upon remedy or resolution to the
matter. Typically, the remedy could include actions such as an acknowledgement and apology,
and/or a commitment to change procedures to prevent future incidents,” reads the document. ” “These facilitated dialogs have a better chance of reaching a successful conclusion when they are done in a confidential and private manner, with a safe space created to resolve differences absent public scrutiny or media coverage.”

The commission would reserve the right to suspend the conflict resolution process “if the process
has been compromised”, and will refer both parties to other options. If the parties cannot reach mutual agreement during the conflict resolution process, the matter could be referred to an outside mediator. The commission would provide both sides with a list of certified volunteer mediators who would be available at no cost.

Anyone can still file a complaint with the state Attorney General’s Office Division of Civil Rights, at which time the role of Princeton Commission on Civil Rights in the matter would be finished. The aggrieved party has 180 days from the time of alleged incident to file a complaint with the state Division on Civil Rights.

The report does not address the issue of jurisdiction over non-government entities and the public schools. The commission has held forums about the school district, but not about agencies it has authority over such as the Princeton Police Department.

You can view the full sub-committee report on the civil rights commission here.