After months of canceled meetings and missing members, the Gainesville Human Rights Board has begun to find its footing this year.
Of the 29 Gainesville city advisory boards, the Human Rights Board is one of the two sole quasi-judicial boards, meaning it can hear legal cases and enforce rulings. It has jurisdiction over cases brought to the city involving many different identities, including race, sexuality, religion and disability.
It appointed two new members this year, making up nearly a third of what should be a seven-person board. But for the past few years, the board has faced several vacancies. It meets monthly, but a string of canceled meetings from November to January has set the five current volunteer members on edge.
It was able to meet during February, had another cancellation in March, and then met again this past April.
Board member TehQuin Forbes felt disoriented coming back to the job in February, he said. He’s been a member for a little over a year.
“I was sort of lost,” he said. “All of the ‘I need a motion,’ ‘who seconds,’ all of that gets really confusing when you’re off.”
Board meeting cancellations come from the Office of Equity and Inclusion. The board was told from November to January that it would be unlikely to meet quorum with a total of five members needed at each meeting, Forbes said.
It’s frustrating, he said. He wishes the board had the chance to keep up with the cases during those months. Though it hasn’t found any cases guilty of discrimination since he’s been there, Forbes thinks the board holds a large amount of significance to the city of Gainesville, he said.
“I think that it’s powerful in that if citizens think they’ve been wronged, there is a place for them to seek restitution,” he said. “And it’s not just some people in an office.”
Vacancies are an issue across all the city advisory boards. More than half of them have missing members. But Mayor Harvey Ward said Human Rights Board seats can be particularly difficult to keep full.
Because of the judicial nature of the Human Rights Board, volunteers can get discouraged after realizing how complex the process is, he said.
“When you sign up for an unpaid position like that and you realize that it really isn’t what you wanted, it’s easy to not show up,” Ward said.
But board member Jonathan Stevens said a solution to that could be student members.
Stevens is a student at the University of Florida. He started as a volunteer in city government as the student member of the Nature Centers Commission two years ago. He was appointed to the Human Rights Board this year.
Students might have more time on their hands to meet monthly, Stevens said, and they’re also underrepresented in city government spaces. He wants to see more of those voices participating, he said.
“I think that there’s so many different perspectives of students when it comes to housing especially,” he said.
Stevens said his experience as a full-time member has been beneficial for his understanding of how city government works. He hopes more students apply.
“I think that it’s important for us to have people like that because a lot of us students aren’t knowledgeable about the law,” Stevens said. “We don’t know what our rights are, especially under the purview that those resources are there.”
The next Human Rights Board meeting will be on Wednesday, presuming it meets quorum.