San Diego County supervisors voted 4-1 Tuesday in favor of amended bylaws for the Leon L. Williams Human Relations Commission, including the ability to censure or remove a member who violates the code of conduct.
Based on a proposal by Supervisor Joel Anderson, commission members will also receive training on commission bylaws, rules of order and the code of conduct, and the public will be able to access meeting video and audio.
Supervisor Jim Desmond was the lone no vote.
Along with a code of conduct, the updated bylaws also let the commission identify the consequences for violation. Censuring or removing a commissioner for violating the Code of Conduct would require a two-thirds vote.
The bylaws also include revising attendance requirements to ensure members are held accountable for unexcused absences at commission and subcommittee meetings to ensure a quorum; and adding a twice-yearly process to evaluate the commission’s organizational seats to determine if any should be added or removed, with Board of Supervisors approval of any additional commission seats.
The board’s decision follows a recent uproar over a commission member’s remarks about LGBTQ residents.
According to a March article in the San Diego Union-Tribune, member Dennis Hodges last November “abstained from voting with other commissioners to endorse a letter condemning transphobia and recommitting to work to end discrimination against transgender people.”
Hodges, a pastor of the Church of Yeshua Ha Mashiach in Lemon Grove, “made controversial remarks about transgender and LGBTQ people including that ‘transgenderism … is an abomination in the eyes of God,'” the U-T reported.
Supervisors re-established the Human Relations Commission in May 2020, naming it in honor of Williams, a noted San Diego civic and political leader.
The commission, chaired by Ellen Nash, sent a letter to Anderson asking the board to remove Hodges, but Anderson declined, the U-T reported.
Before reviewing the item on Tuesday, board Chairman Nathan Fletcher described it as emotionally charged. “I hope we can conduct ourselves with decorum,” he added.
Nash, fellow member David Garcias and other supporters said the bylaw reforms, including the code of conduct, were important to protect the rights of everyone and clarify the commission’s purpose.
“Our commissioners felt it was important to take a step forward,” Garcias said.
Opponents said the bylaw changes threatened free speech and religious rights.
During a public comment period, Hodges said the bylaws that censor people or describe biblical quotations as hate speech “is not respecting the integrity of every individual.” Hodges also referenced “a Nov. 9 incident,” but said he wouldn’t go into details.
Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer said the commission is charged with promoting respect and dignity among people.
“This vote in front of us today is not about freedom of speech,” she said, but instead about the HRC being allowed to create bylaws and qualifications of membership and service.
To further make her point, Lawson-Remer also read several passages from the Bible and cited the American Civil Liberties Union supporting the right of neo-Nazis to march through Skokie, Illinois in the 1970s. She added that the right to free speech is not the same as the right to serve on a board.
Anderson proposed giving the commission an opportunity to resolve issues “before we make big bylaw changes.”
He also said it was important “not to weaponize” a code of conduct for committees and added that if bylaws can be changed because someone quotes the Bible, Quran or Torah, “we’re going down the wrong road.”
Desmond said that while certain proposals including better training are reasonable, the requirement of a two-thirds vote on more serious matters wasn’t.
Desmond also read a comment from one of his appointees, a transgender woman named Gina Roberts, who wrote that “using hate speech for anything you don’t agree with is worse than anything I heard from Reverend Hodges.”
“We need to allow freedom of speech, from all points of view,” Desmond said.
Desmond said the HRC “is put together so people learn to work with each other. The fatal flaw in this Human Relations Commission is allowing humans to be on it.”
Supervisor Nora Vargas said it was important for leaders to be “very cautious, and that language matters.”
“Young people are listening and they internalize,” she said in reference to certain remarks made during public comment.
Vargas said that she was not “voting to decide the Bible is hate speech,” and said HRC members “are trying to have tough conversations, that as a county we haven’t even had ourselves.”
Updated at 4:14 p.m., April 5, 2022