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Wake-Up Call: Civil rights, better late than never

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"You all wasted our time," proclaimed community activist Alvertis Simmons at a public forum held July 27 by the Colorado Division of Civil Rights.

"This was not a waste of your time," replied Rico Munn, the cool-headed director of the Department of Regulatory Affairs, which includes the Division of Civil Rights. "We're trying to put together a report that has not been done in a decade."

A decade?

Munn hasn't been the head of DORA nearly that long -- he was appointed after Bill Ritter was elected governor. And over the last two-plus years, Ritter and Munn have gone a long way toward rebuilding the Division of Civil Rights, starting by reopening two of the regional offices (in Grand Junction and Pueblo) that were closed down by former Governor Bill Owens. "We'll reopen more as budgets allow," Munn says.

But there's still more to do, including that report. It was during the recent sunset review of the division that they discovered an annual report on the state of civil rights in Colorado hadn't been compiled in more than a decade -- despite the fact that such a report is required by statute. Munn told Ritter, and the governor said to get it done.

The forums are one way to start gathering information for that report, to "go out to communities and see what's on people's minds, Munn says. Led by new director Steve Chavez, the division held two forums in Denver last week after an earlier session in Greeley -- one of the cities that lost its regional civil rights office under Owens. Later this month, it will host forums on the Western Slope and in Southern Colorado.

And they're finding that people have plenty on their minds in these tough economic times. "Complaints are increasing in both housing and employment," Munn says. Sometimes these complaints involve a potential civil rights issue; sometimes the complainer just needs to complain. "People have problems," he notes. "We can direct them to the right agency."

Munn says he hopes to have the long-lost reporting process back on track and a current report done by October, in time to serve as "a tool to inform a community conversation, and also to inform the legislature."

That legislature will be facing some tough choices in the next session, and some of them could involve the Division of Civil Rights, since it's the only one of DORA's divisions whose budget comes from federal funds and the state's general funds, not fees. That's because those other divisions regulate professions that pay fees, while the Division of Civil Rights protects civil rights.

Which pays in other ways. Talking about civil rights is never a waste of time.

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