Commission on Human Relations Dragged into Total War

Yesterday the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations held a special meeting for the sole seeming purpose of determining whether and how to punish one of its members for publicly discussing her concerns about that body’s search for a new Director.

As was reported seven weeks ago:

New Commissioner Helen Gerhardt called it “an improper process” plagued by a lack of transparency and accountability and added that the next director could have an impact on the “daily lives of many thousands who work, visit, or live in Pittsburgh for decades to come.”


Ms. Gerhardt, who has frequently clashed with the commission’s leadership over the hiring process, said commissioners were only given the resume of Ms. Rogers, the preferred candidate of the commission’s personnel committee, at the July 30 meeting. Ms. Gerhardt’s request to see the resumes of other finalists was refused.

“We were expected to do an up-or-down vote on the candidate without having the time to look at [resumes]. And commissioners were not supposed to do outside research or to bring it to the personnel committee for consideration,” she said.  (P-G, Zullo & Potter)

Yesterday, that was Commissioner Leah Williams-Duncan’s pointed concern. Duncan had been chairwoman of the commission during that prior search process, and Tim Smith chair of its “Personnel Committee” handling those details.

As it happened, the full Commission would go on to reject Duncan and Smith’s recommended applicant by a vote of 9 to 2.

Yesterday, Duncan demanded that Gerhardt “prove” that her processes lacked transparency and accountability — complaining that her own reputation had been unfairly damaged as well as that of the whole body by Gerhardt’s “lying”. Meanwhile Smith protested that if Gerhardt had problems with his process, then she ought to have raised them earlier.

Printouts of old emails and prior meeting minutes were argued over at length. Gerhardt was able to clearly establish that she and others were denied access to information at various stages, though Smith defended his decisions to withhold these as consistent with prior agreements. Commissioners Rubio, Fogarty and Tague backed Gerhardt in different respects. Commissioner Padias, who is to be the next Personnel Committee chair, expressed apprehension that Gerhardt might spring similar complaints midway through her own efforts.

Present commission chairman Winford Craig labored to keep the conversation moving productively, and did not take sides — except when Smith accused him of improperly conducting a straw poll for Patricia Rogers, which he disputed vehemently.

At length it seemed as though the sufficiency of the previous process was a matter of interpretation, and the propriety of Gerhardt’s public airing of her concerns was a matter of opinion.

Chairman Craig asked Duncan what she wanted to see happen now that would enable the Commission to move forward.

That is when Leah Williams-Duncan lit fire to the Commission on Human Relations by responding, “What you two [Gerhardt and Fogarty] did to me and what you did to Patricia Rogers, this is how we treat Black females on this commission. As a whole, we discriminate against African American females on this commission. It’s documented.”


Duncan yesterday at one point asked her colleagues to excuse her loud volume, because “I was the youngest of seven children.” Fair enough. I was an only child — so forgive me for having an exaggerated sense of the importance of my own opinions.

I am a white male. Therefore when I explain to you why I do not believe anyone on this Commission (much less its majority) has been acting out of racism and sexism, I do not expect many of you to be persuaded by me. If my testimony here strikes you as “mansplaining” or “whitesplaining”, that will be understandable.

But I’ve seen a lot of changes over the 6 or 7 months during which I’ve attended the meetings of this Commission, and most of them positive.

Duncan in April was still chair of the Commission, dominating its meetings and unilaterally determining their course. Most other members stared sullenly at the table in front of them, voting when called upon, and either serving her obsequiously or else absorbing her abuse.

Winford Craig is now chair of the Commission. Meetings are now run according to Robert’s Rules of Order. The media has been attending and reporting on its proceedings. A blogger has picked at Duncan once or twice, and he did not get sued or burst into flames. Other Commissioners are participating more freely, smiling more often, speaking more candidly. As a group they began holding “deliberative forums” out in the neighborhoods, and they are going surprisingly well.

Last week, about 50 community residents attended one such forum in Highland Park. They sat at round tables in small groups, one commissioner seated at each to lead intimate discussions about residents’ experiences with discrimination and the Commission’s roles in addressing it. Prior to that good stuff, Vice-Chair Tague opened with what is usually a formality: the approval of the minutes of their previous meeting. That meeting was a contentious one, so Commissioner Duncan had 3 corrections she wished to see made to those minutes. (Okay.) Fogarty objected to her suggested corrections. (Okay.) After some stilted back and forth, one community member suggested that Commissioners put their “internal politics” aside and get to the engaging and understandable part of the public program. Tague sheepishly motioned to table further debate over the minutes until their next meeting — a regular monthly business meeting, not one of these community forums.

Duncan objected to postponing still further argument over the minutes, instead voting to continue debating them in front of people who put aside time in their evenings to participate in something meaningful to them. It really struck me then that something must be seriously awry with her focus.

I believe Duncan is mainly frustrated that she has lost so much of her power so quickly. I could not guess whether her claims of bigotry are wholly cynical, or partially political (she also made some comments at the forum about how “this administration” doesn’t care about affordable housing), or personally triggered, or arise from a slightly different conception of a mission to advance the standing of Black women than I would have expected in this context. Nor have I been privy to every Commission conversation. But my strong impression is her recent contentions are baseless. There were very legitimate reasons to pass over her applicant, just as there are reasons many of her colleagues are growing increasingly immune to her belligerence.


Moving forward — just like we all desire so deeply — what are my prescriptions for the Commission on Human Relations?

  • Consider scrapping the “Personnel Committee” entirely and expand the search for Executive Director to a “Committee of the Whole” or a “Committee of Anybody Who Darn Well Feels Like It”. There is just too much opportunity for miscommunication and mistrust in leaving some commissioners inside and others outside, and no one has explained the utility of doing it this way.
  • While you’re at it, seriously consider that by all accounts the staff of the Commission is doing an outstanding job as it is and despite you. Maybe that suggests your now-longtime Interim Director has earned a promotion. Her institutional knowledge and experience is only growing more valuable, and it would certainly be of benefit to you, and more importantly to the City, to pole-vault this unceasing ludicrousness.
  • Do not all resign. Don’t let the terrorists win.
  • If you do fail to resign as a group or disappear yourselves — I wonder whether a Solicitor can continue to serve a board after s/he has publicly impugned their integrity and demanded their resignations? It seems like such a Solicitor would have a duty to resign him/herself at that point. That would be a genuine shame, but Trower has kind of painted himself into a corner.
  • According to today’s news, “Mayoral spokesman Tim McNulty said the mayor will review the chairman’s letter with Valerie McDonald Roberts, the city’s chief urban affairs officer and the mayor’s liaison to the commission.”  That’s probably an idea whose time has come, to involve the Executive liaison, the “Chief,” at this stage. These issues have been festering and escalating for a long time; somebody should throw them some lifelines already.

The Commission had planned previously to go on a retreat on Oct. 31 to work on “communication”. That much was sound preparedness.

12 thoughts on “Commission on Human Relations Dragged into Total War

  1. Anon

    Let me just make sure i have this correct for the future. When some cries discrimination and racism against people we like, we analyze that criticism as being motivated by a loss of power and self preservation. When some cries discrimination and racism against someone we don’t like we should hold rallies and launch websites to attack them. Do i have that right?

    1. Bram ReichbaumBram Reichbaum Post author

      I am not sure what your reference to rallies and websites signifies. I believe when someone makes serious public accusations, the public should take a serious look at the situation and discuss it. If anyone else is familiar with this situation and is willing to share a different perspective, that would be very helpful!

  2. Helen Gerhardt

    As Commissioners who are given extra legal power over others to investigate complaints of discrimination, it is critical that we weigh such accusations against ourselves carefully and with acknowledgement of the larger structures of systemic racism we are embedded within.

    Because of both systemic and personal biases, I think it all the more critical that discussions of our criteria and assessment methods for our job search be public and inclusive of all our members who will help make this hiring choice, with due consideration of our differences and vested interests, as well as our ties to the vested interests of various institutions, elected officials, and groups that might try to exert influence through us.

    1. Anon

      Helen – since you make vague reference to institutions and elected officials and groups that might try and influence the process through commission members, you should expound upon that. Who is trying to influence and through whom? If you don’t give us some specific context your comments could be construed as a critical component part of this alleged shadowy influence war.

      1. Helen Gerhardt

        No. I never publicly blamed any individuals for the issues about which I was concerned. I have stated from the beginning that I fully share responsibility for the flaws in our job search process. My firm commitment is to continue to help work toward forming better process that might prevent problems in the future.

      2. Anon

        Here is what you said “as well as our ties to the vested interests of various institutions, elected officials, and groups that might try to exert influence through us” – so i am just asking for you to describe who you are tied to and who the other members are tied to. Please clarify.

    1. Helen Gerhardt

      “When you assemble a number of men [and women!] to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men [and women!] all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views.”

      Benjamin Franklin was one pretty-wise dude, perhaps because he was always pointing his sharply ironic mind right back at his own multitudinous foibles and limitations of vision [and where are women and slaves and Native Americans ETC ETC in all his fine fighting and finagling for Liberty!?!?] right along with his oh, so human fellow Founders in all their multitudinous squabbles. They did happen to recognize the value of very multitudinois very public squabbles when it came to choices that would have big public impact.

      Those oh-so-squabbly Founders quite often pointed to the very basic fact that political associations and personal/family/ethnic loyalties and vested interests and religious passions and ardent ideologies are so incredibly par for the course that it was generally best that really big decisions shouldn’t really be made in closed rooms by just a few probably-most-often-very-good people who might be so swayed by some/all of the above angles of respectworthy vision that they might harmoniously choose courses of action that they might believe with all of their hearts and minds to be the best for everybody but then turn out to have lacked enough brouhaha in the brewing that they turned out not to be so good for so many.

      So, what I will continue to do is to support public, transparent, democratic free-speech-hopefully-more-civil squabbling with agreed-upon due process (YAY Roberts rules of Order!!!) to structure the give-and-take of adult problem-solving and negotiation, which in our diverse world cannot happen without honest discussion, debate, disagreement, and respect for different angles of vision and experience and identity.

      1. Anon

        couldn’t agree with you more. So then I presume you are against the back room, ram it through in a week, whole sale change to the City’s campaign finance rules?

        But you still didn’t answer the specific question. Which people on the commission are tied to specific politicians or ethnic or religious groups?

  3. Helen Gerhardt

    Amazing the courage it takes to demand that names be named from under cover of anonymity. Plain and simple: I am not out to spotlight any individuals but the systems which help set up unfair or imbalanced or hasty or biased or impractical decisions. I will continue to work to set up systems where those who are elected or appointed or hired to exert government power are in more open and responsible communication with each other, with the press as fourth estate, and with the public. As an appointed Commissioner, it’s my responsibility to work with all my fellow Pittsburgers toward establishing a process here in my corner of City government that is more openly accountable to those who are aided and/or affected by our powers.

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