At its Monday, May 8 meeting, the East Lansing Human Rights Commission took no action on two long-running complaints alleging civil rights violations, even as one complainant chastised the commission for a lack of action.
The commission also hosted a representative from Washtenaw County to discuss its county identification card program while considering how a local option might be introduced.
Special ID card systems can help people stay safe, get jobs and “be recognized as a person.”
Keta Cowan from the Washtenaw County ID Task Force and Ann Arbor Human Rights Commission came to town to present at the meeting, having dinner with East Lansing Human Rights Commissioner Karen Hoene and Ingham County Commissioner Robert Peña before the meeting.
“In 2012, I was sitting at my desk,” Cowan said at the meeting. “I ran the Human Service Agency at the time, and received a call that a senior citizen — she was about 85 — had been discharged from the hospital [and] all of her original credentials were lost. And at the time, no physician in her network would see her without ID. And when I contacted the Secretary of State’s office, I discovered in fact, there were no provisions for emergency ID or a provisional ID or a conditional ID, even if emergency medical circumstances [were present].
“So that, to me, was problematic, and clearly a fallout of the 9/11 report, which recommended the Real ID Act, which when enacted in Michigan and a lot of other states, created a built-in catch 22,” Cowan said. “You need a government-issued ID to get your birth certificate, but you need your birth certificate to get a state-issued ID.”
With this dilemma in the back of Cowan’s mind, the Ann Arbor HRC formed the Washtenaw County ID Task Force, citing Article VI of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration states, “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.”
During the task force’s research, Cowan said they discovered that seven to 10% of U.S. citizens lacked any ID. (This was in addition to approximately 100,0000 undocumented individuals living in the country.)
“[For] African-Americans,” she said, “the statistics are [that] almost 25 percent across the United States lack ID.”
The task force developed a methodology of verifying individual identification because many attempting to get state ID were facing subjective discrimination.
“You walk in, you have a suit — a commissioner told us, ‘My ID was expired and I walked in and they just gave me a new one,’ and that’s privilege,” Cowan said.
A point system was developed to allow individuals to prove their identity, with 300 points being required to obtain a county ID. For example, an ID from an educational institution is worth 75 points, a W-2 is 60 points, and a notarized affidavit from someone who has known you for 10 or more years is worth 100 points.
“Once we got the card in place, we learned that 73% of all those folks who had a card used that card to get a job,” Kowan said.
Since the county IDs were introduced, Washtenaw has issued just under 4,000. Each card requires a payment of $25 to pay for printing equipment. However, Cowan said the Ann Arbor HRC will work to help cover costs for individuals who do not have the money.
Cowan said through an outreach campaign to local businesses, the ID was accepted 91% of the time. The task force also worked with social justice groups at area churches and social work students from the University of Michigan to help grow the project.
In the eight years since the ID was first printed, there have been no reports of fraud, according to Cowan. Similar projects were introduced in the Detroit municipal area and Kalamazoo County, resulting in identification cards in those areas.
Photo IDs issued by counties cannot be used to vote. The Secretary of State has a set list of acceptable forms of identification, and this type of ID is not on the list.
Ingham County Commissioner Irene Cahill was present to hear the May 8 presentation, but did not weigh-in on whether such an initiative could happen here.
East Lansing HRC Commissioners Tina Farhat and Hoene both volunteered to look into the issue to see how the commission could support moving forward with such an effort.
Meanwhile, two long-running civil rights complaints have seen little movement forward.
During public comment, Mark Grebner made his way to the podium. He is also an Ingham County Commissioner, but was there to speak not in that capacity but as an East Lansing resident. Grebner is a familiar face at these meetings, having made in August 2022 a civil rights violation complaint against landlord DTN on behalf of his niece, who was threatened with eviction over her reliance on a federal program helping pay her rent.
During his time holding the floor, Grebner expressed frustration with the pace of the investigation.
“It has now been eight months since I brought the complaint, which, at least on its face, seems to be a clear violation of East Lansing ordinances,” Grebner said. “And frankly, not much progress has been made, so I’m here to see what’s been happening, if anything.
“We just keep waiting for something to happen and I don’t know how much clearer a case could be than the one we presented….On our side, all we can do is present you with the facts that it certainly appears that they directly, deliberately, intentionally violated the law, discriminated against my niece in the clearest possible way, citing a federal program and saying, ‘We will not renew your lease because you have received federal funds.’ They said that in writing. I don’t know what more we can do than present the complaint to you and wait. And we have now waited patiently for eight months.”
Later, during a time set aside for commissioners to make announcements, Commissioner Hoene apologized to Grebner for the delay in the investigation, asking him what he saw as an ideal outcome of the situation.
“In broad terms,” Grebner said, “my niece and her children suffered substantial hardship. They were forced to move abruptly. So, financial compensation for the move, hardship and being discriminated against would be appropriate.”
Grebner also wants to see DTN acknowledge the city ordinances that were broken and admit their fault.
The commissioners unanimously passed a motion asking City Attorney Tony Chubb to prepare a written report on the state of his work for the body’s June meeting. (Chubb was not at the May 8 meeting.)
Commissioner Kayla Gomez also gave a short update on her subcommittee’s work on the racial bias complaint related to the Jan. 11 incident at the East Lansing Public Library. The subcommittee was formed to advise the commission on whether a formal investigation should be undertaken. This means that, technically, the group has yet to even begin a formal investigation.
Foreman made the complaint on Jan. 30. For reasons that have not been explained, DEI Director Elaine Hardy, did not bring the complaint to the HRC’s February meeting, waiting instead until March to present it.
Gomez said on May 8 that the three-member subcommittee’s attempts to schedule a meeting with Stelisha Foreman, the complainant and mother of the child who was wrongly accused by ELPL Director Kristin Shelley of vandalizing a library restroom, have not yet had successful results. But, she said, they would continue trying to find a time that worked for Foreman and a majority of the subcommittee.
In other commission news, HRC Chairperson Liz Miller announced she would have to resign her seat because she was moving out of East Lansing this summer. Miller, the pastor at Edgewood United Church, has accepted a new ministerial position out of state. She encouraged anyone who was interested in becoming chair to speak with her about the role’s responsibilities.
Commissioners Joshua Hewitt and Julia Walters gave an update on a proposed emergency contraceptive vending machine they’re been exploring. ELi will publish a special report on this possible initiative in the coming days.
Hoene and Walters both shared their support of Hardy and Mayor Ron Bacon in the wake of an anonymous complaint against the two.
Plans for summer Coffee & Conversation sessions were also discussed. Events will be held June 4 and June 25, highlighting antisemitism and the trangender community, respectively.
The next meeting of the East Lansing Human Rights Commission is scheduled for Monday, June 12, at the Hannah Community Center.