Jacksonville, FL - It was nearly an hour of debate spent on a topic that wasn’t set for discussion.
Jacksonville’s Rules Committee Tuesday moved forward the appointment and reappointment of three people to Jacksonville’s Human Rights Commission, and the resolutions will now receive a final vote in front of the full Council next week.
Rules Chair Clay Yarborough had deferred action on these resolutions- appointing Mario Ernesto Decunto and reappointing Parvez Ahmed and Susan Harthill- until the next Rules meeting.
City Councilman John Crescimbeni appealed the decision of the chair- a little used move in Council chambers. Councilmen Yarborough, Ray Holt and Robin Lumb opposed the appeal, but Councilmen Warren Jones, Lori Boyer and Jim Love joined Crescimbeni, forcing the action today.
“It would have been nice had we not been blindsided by this, but just allow the process to go forward,” Lumb says.
Decunto’s appointment and Harthill’s reappointment went through with little discussion, and all committee members, except Lumb, voted in favor. Lumb made clear his vote against the appointments and reappointments was a protest of being “blindsided” by the decision to take the vote up today.
“This is basically a vote of ‘no confidence’ for reasons that aren’t very good,” he says.
Crescimbeni says nobody should have been blindsided because he has been a vocal opponent of any action that would co-mingle these appointments and a bill from Councilman Matt Schellenberg which would reduce the size of the Human Rights Commission. Yarborough cited that as the reason for deferring the vote, saying he wanted to give Schellenberg’s bill a chance to work through council first.
“I feel like we have two issues before this body: we have appointments and we have a bill to talk about reducing the size or changing the size of a certain commission, which happens to be what you’re up for an appointment for- and they are two issues,” Crescimbeni says.
The bill came up several times in the course of the discussion. Councilman Warren Jones says, in his view, Schellemberg’s bill is a clear ploy to get Ahmed off the HRC.
“Stevie Wonder could see through that. Everybody knows the motivation behind the legislation, let’s be honest,” he says.
That drew quick retort from Boyer, who says she believes Schellenberg at his word.
“Thank you, Mr. Jones. I appreciate you NOT knowing my position,” Schellenberg says.
The majority of the debate was focused on the reappointment of Dr. Parvez Ahmed to the HRC. The discussion that took place when he was appointed in 2010 is still a sore spot for some on the council, and Lumb says he wanted to use this process as an opportunity to clear the air and set the record straights.
“I was planning on asking Dr. Ahmed a number of questions. That opportunity is now foreclosed,” he says.
Lumb specifically has concerns over statements on anti-blasphemy laws as well as involvement, on behalf of CAIR, in a lawsuit. Other councilmembers shared some concerns as well, but were not as confident we would come out of the public comment clean.
“Sometimes, it’s not always beneficial to draw out, ad naseum, controversial issues,” Boyer says.
Jones doesn’t think Ahmed should need to be so severely rescreened after serving the HRC with no complaints and no questions about him surfacing.
“Jacksonville is bigger than that, they are better than that, and we won’t tolerate it,” he says.
Ultimately, Ahmed’s reappointment passed by the slimmest margin of 4-3.
Learning from the past
Tolerance was a big theme for multiple councilmembers who alluded to the discussion from 2010, as well as debate which happened just a few months ago on expanding Jacksonville’s Human Rights Ordinance.
“To defer these appointments would be an embarrassment- a continued embarrassment- to the city,” Crescimbeni says.
Jones stressed that “embarrassments” like that have other cities competing for business “laughing” at Jacksonville because it will not advance protections, a mirror argument to what he said when pushing the HRO expansion.
Even those who protested today’s action didn’t seem against the vote itself.
On a number of occasions, Lumb said his concerns over Ahmed were not based on Ahmed’s religion or any claims he had not thoroughly researched. He also says he supports the idea of a Human Rights Commission, although he says the city’s current one needs some retooling.