Social club out of Assembly's crosshairs

Mayor: 'We may have moved too hastily'

Posted: Friday, December 05, 2008

Eight days after formally directing Mayor Bruce Botelho to condemn a social club's participation in an Adopt-a-Highway program, the Juneau Assembly rescinded its order, taking the Men's Crisis Center out of its crosshairs.

The initial order came at the Assembly's Nov. 17 meeting at the request of the city's Human Rights Commission, which told the Assembly that the Men's Crisis Center had made "sexist and discriminatory remarks" on its Web site and recommended the Assembly make an official statement protesting the club's statements and participation in the highway cleanup program.

The Web site in question has crude jokes related to male and female stereotypes, but only a tenuous connection to the locals that signed up to keep clean a stretch of North Douglas Highway in 1997. The club's name comes from a California folk duo's song "Men's Crisis Center," a satirical tune about a man going to absurd lengths to avoid his wife to hang out with his buddies. The Web site in question is part of the duo's music Web site and not a product of the club's members in Juneau.

Peter Metcalfe, a particularly vocal member of the group, framed the controversy as a series of missteps compounded by a rush to judgment that ultimately "made a mockery of human rights."

"How'd they get steered so wrong?... I can't imagine sitting on a commission and talking about this. For them to make an issue of this - isn't there something more important? How about Alaskan Natives, their graduation rates? There's lots of human rights issues out there. This isn't one of them," Metcalfe said. "They made this whole big issue out of a stupid Web site."

In between the Assembly's initial order and the reversal, Metcalfe wrote scathing letters to the commission and Assembly pointing out their failure to talk directly with club members and calling on commissioners to resign. Metcalfe and other club members had addressed the matter openly in letters to the editor before the commission took it up.

Mary-Claire Bernstein and Jesse Kiehl were the commission members who made the case before the Assembly to protest the Men's Crisis Center. Bernstein could not be reached for comment.

Kiehl, emphasizing he spoke only for himself, said the commission acted within its assigned role.

"The Assembly's charge to the Juneau Human Rights Commission ... is to raise issues. And specifically, to raise issues to the Assembly," Kiehl said. "The request was to stand up and say, 'In our town, that's not OK.'"

Assembly member Jonathan Anderson, a former member of the commission and perhaps its biggest backer, said he didn't think the commission made a mistake, but that the Assembly did.

"We want them to stand up for what they believe is right," Anderson said of the commission. "We can have a conversation about it, letters to the editor, civic discourse. That's a good thing. ... I believe we erred. I believe we erred in not judging that this is not the appropriate role for the Assembly to judge the offensiveness of one group or the other."

Botelho said he thinks this will be the end of the Assembly's dabbling with the Men's Crisis Center.

"The action by the Assembly to rescind its direction to send the letter, I think that's probably the final word that we may have moved too hastily," Botelho said. "I don't think the Assembly is going to devote much more time to the specific issue. I do think it's appropriate to examine how things should come to us and make sure our process is in place so that we are getting various perspectives on an issue. Vetting usually takes place at each stage."

At the commission's next meeting on Tuesday, it plans to speak with club members directly.

Prior to the commission's involvement, a local attorney and the Juneau chapters of the National Organization for Women and the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence had written protest letters about the club to the state Department of Transportation, which runs the Adopt-a-Highway program.

The chapter president of the women's group, Nadine Lefebvre, declined to comment. Calls to the substance abuse group were referred to board member Joan Cahill, who could not be reached for comment.

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