Gov. Sean Parnell Monday announced the appointment of Kodiak resident JoAnn Holmes to the Alaska Commission for Human Rights for a five-year term.
Members of this statewide board hold public hearings on human rights complaints. They also issue decisions and can institute penalties against businesses or individuals who illegally discriminate against others due to race, religion, color, national origin, sex or because of a mental or physical disability.
Holmes called the work of the human rights commission extremely important.
“It’s fascinating,” Holmes said. “Alaska has some pretty sturdy laws dealing with discrimination.”
Last year the human rights commission staff processed 412 complaints of discrimination, 20 percent more than in 2009 and the highest number of filings in eight years.
The vast majority of those 412 complaints came in the form of employment discrimination, but complaints were also filed for discrimination in government practices, housing, and public accommodation.
Most complaints, however, are closed due to lack of evidence, while others are mediated, reach conciliation, or are dropped before reaching the seven-member board. A fact sheet from the state of Alaska indicates that the commissioners should expect 10 to 15 decision hearings each year.
Holmes was chosen for this commission due to previous service on state boards, her interest in serving again and her experience in matters of law.
A press release by the governor’s office referenced Holmes previous experience as a tribal court administrator and village administrator with the Woody Island Tribal Council and the Ivanof Bay Tribal Council. She also has experience directing a consumer protection group.
Holmes said she enjoyed matters of the law and worked with it for many years, because the public policy issues that arise affect everybody to one degree or another.
Part of the problem with discrimination and human rights abuses, Holmes said, is that individuals may not know what their rights are under the law or, as in the case of employment discrimination, don’t have the money to hire an attorney.
The Alaska State Commission for Human Rights fielded more than 2,000 inquiries and concerns from Alaskans last year. The commission staff can assist people in filing a discrimination complaint or give advice about what responsibilities are required under state law.
Holmes said she was raised with an ethic that says, “If there’s something wrong in our world, you have the responsibility to point it out.” She feels part of her responsibility on the commission is to get information to people on what their rights and duties are under the Alaska Human Rights Law.
While the staff caseload has increased, she said, money from the state has not, so staff cannot accomplish all of the outreach opportunities they would like.
Holmes served on state commissions including the Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct and the Alaska Sentencing Commission. The sentencing commission included a grueling review of sentencing statutes in the state of Alaska to see if people in different areas of the state were sentenced to different amounts of jail time, Holmes said.
Holmes said she originally applied for a different commission, the state parole board, after Kodiak Sen. Gary Stevens put out a broad call to constituents asking if they would be interested in serving on state boards and commissions.
However, when she didn’t get the parole board position, she was asked if she would accept other vacancies at other state commissions.
Holmes travels today to Anchorage for her first meeting with the other members of the commission and for training in the history of civil rights laws and discrimination related to immigrants.
Mirror writer Wes Hanna can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.