Saturday, April 20, 2024

As the Monteiro racial-discrimination case labored through 11 years of Superior Court proceedings, the city’s own Human Rights Commission faced opposition from the city’s Law Department when it sought to discuss the matter.

Letters in 2005 and 2006 from City Solicitor Donald A. Drisdell raised issues with the commission seeking a copy of the original complaint brought by Malvina Monteiro as well as scheduling a meeting that included Ellen Zucker, the attorney for Monteiro and others claiming discrimination and retaliation.

“We thought we were trying to become informed, and we got our hands slapped,” said Susan A. Ostrander, a commissioner from 1998 until last summer, in an interview Monday.

The commission “needed to know the status” of the case, explained Marla Erlien, chairwoman at the time, the same day. “City government needs a set of procedures to head off discrimination.”

Steering the commission away from participation in such matters appears to be contrary to city ordinances, which were cited in an Oct. 17 letter to The Cambridge Chronicle by five former commissioners. The commission “shall discuss human rights problem areas with the city manager and make recommendations necessary to protect the human rights of all city citizens and employees,” they quoted.

Instead of collecting information about the case, Erlien was told in a March 28, 2005, letter from Drisdell that discussing the matter with Zucker present “would be highly inappropriate. Until the active litigation in these cases is resolved, and particularly while the Monteiro post-trial motions are pending, a private advocate with a forum … has the effect or the appearance of seeking to influence the court.”

Zucker did attend an April 7, 2005, commission meeting, as did Nancy Glowa of the Law Department, a former commissioner said.

In a letter dated Jan. 5, 2006, Drisdell wrote:

“It has been brought to my attention that the Human Rights Commission agenda for its meeting tonight includes as item No. 6, ‘Monteiro case.’ The draft minutes of the commission’s meeting on Dec. 1, 2005, indicate that the commission sought to obtain the court complaint in the Monteiro case and tabled the matter for comment at tonight’s meeting. It appears from the draft Dec. 1, 2005, minutes that the commission is contemplating discussing the merits of whether discrimination has occurred in this case.”

Commission members said they did not get the Monteiro complaint — a public record.

Erlien and Ostrander said the commission’s charge is not to take sides in cases; at the same time, it cannot ignore bias cases.

“All five of us are certified mediators,” Ostrander said of the five who signed the letter this month. Their role is to mediate, not adjudicate, she said.

To illustrate the commission’s role in the city, she cited a 1999 memo to Richard Rossi, deputy city manager, outlining goals. One was to create a mediation panel with other city agencies, an offer of member expertise Ostrander said was made “repeatedly” but ignored.

“Hello, we’re here,” she said.

At least one other city commission has experienced a similar approach from Healy: the Police Review and Advisory Board, a citizens commission intended to oversee the police department and review complaints against it. When black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested by white Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley in July 2009, a firestorm of race and class issues ensued, and instead of turning to the existing board, Healy formed a 12-member panel of national experts costing at least $241,360  that took some nine months to produce a 60-page report. Among the findings in the document was that the city should find a way to involve the community in police issues and form a Police Commissioner’s Advisory Board. There is no mention of PRAB in the report.

Monteiro, before leaving the city, was executive secretary for the board.

Since she left, the board has gone through long periods without an executive secretary or full staffing, and lacked both when Gates was arrested.

“The people of Cambridge are not stupid. They know PRAB has been destabilized … It hasn’t been there. If Gates wanted to go there [after his arrest], it didn’t exist. It was on hiatus, and I hold the council responsible for this, because we have known for way too long that the city manager, for reasons best known to him, is not trying to empower the Police Review and Advisory Board to protect the rights of the people,” city councillor Ken Reeves said a year ago, upon hearing the Gates commission’s report. “We let that happen. Not me, but we let that happen.”

In April 2009, seven commission members got a letter thanking them for their services from City Manager Robert W. Healy, who controls appointments to it and all other city commissions.

The seven were two current members — Mercedes S. Evans, the vice chairwoman, and Randa A. Shedid — and the five former commissioners who wrote to the Chronicle.

All reapplied to the board and continued serving while waiting to hear back from the City Manager’s Office. They were left hanging, though, the former commissioners said. Ostrander finally got a letter from Healy in July and left the commission the next month. Charles Kavanaugh, described as irked by the treatment, left earlier, as did Daniel Klubock, a retired judge.

Cambridge Day sent an e-mail October 24 to Colleen Johnston, executive director of the rights commission, asking her to forward it to Melissa Gonzalez-Brenes, the commission’s current chairwoman. The latter was asked whether the current board was talking with the City Council about steps to take in the aftermath of the multimillion-dollar settlement of three civil rights cases in Cambridge and, more generally, who is responsible for upholding human rights in the city. She has not responded.

Responses are also awaited from Healy and Drisdell, who were asked for comment about their roles in events that the former commissioners describe, as well as from Klubock.

Marc Levy contributed to this report.