Human Rights Commission a valuable, positive resource in Ottumwa

The Ottumwa Human Rights Commission handles issues internally without needing to involve the city or state.

Last week, the Kirksville City Council voted not to establish a nine-person Human Rights Commission to handle issues of diversity and discrimination in the community. Those who were against the idea said it would create a target for lawsuits and was overall unnecessary, since residents can take complaints to the Kirksville Police Department.

Ultimately, the measure was voted down 3-2. Yet in Ottumwa, the Human Rights Commission has existed for years and is largely viewed as a positive influence.

"The reason [to have one] was to make sure that our community was open to all kinds of different people and that if there was a problem, that there would be a place for them to go," said commission member Carol Williams.

The commission handles problems dealing with age, sex, race, disability, religion, creed, color, marital status and national origin. The problems may exist between employers and employees, landowners and renters, neighbors, or beyond.

"We go in, try to see both sides of the story, sit down and talk with them, see if we can't get some type of solution," said commission member Ed Ball.

Ottumwa City Administrator Joe Helfenberger said an issue or problem has never reached the point where city intervention is needed, because the Human Rights Commission is able to handle them internally. Sometimes, all it takes is communication to solve an issue and it keeps disagreements that could be settled between the parties from tying up the legal system.

"The opposite is, in some other cities where they don't have this, they have court procedures that take a great deal of time and money for people," Helfenberger said. "And here, they can resolve things while they're relatively still manageable. And so we feel they're very valuable for our community and they make people feel welcome from all walks of life. And I think we're stronger in our diversity with the community."

Over the years, the commission has seen new issues emerge, such as discrimination based on sexual identity. The Human Rights Commission also has several outreach programs to educate the public and especially youth. And as they adapt to the times, the commission continues to be a valuable resource.

"The most important thing to me is being proactive and the public education component where we're training people not to tolerate discrimination, I think that's critical for us and for our society," Helfenberger said.

Helfenberger added that the commission is also valuable due to its accessibility. Everyone can contact members at any time and get help dealing with their problem.

"One of the best things you can do for your community is to have a human rights commission," said Ball. "It makes a big difference."

If an issue ever gets to the point of a formal complaint, the Ottumwa Human Rights Commission will help those involved get in contact with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. They're also involved in several projects around the community, such as the SKIT Outreach at Ottumwa High School and hosting International Day at the Quincy Place Mall each spring.

If you would like to be involved in the Human Rights Commission, you can pick up an application or get more information by stopping by Ottumwa City Hall or calling 641-683-0600. That is also the same way to get in contact with the Human Rights Commission to seek assistance with an issue or problem.