Charleston City Council on Tuesday night voted 8-4 to advance a measure to create a standing Human Affairs and Racial Conciliation Commission, changed from the previously discussed Commission on Equity, Inclusion and Racial Conciliation, after hearing hours of comments from residents and among council members.

The ordinance passed its first reading at the last council meeting on Dec. 21. The third and final reading has been scheduled for the next meeting Jan. 25.

The contentious measure sparked protests outside of City Hall during the meeting as some signed up speak against the measure, claiming it sought to “defund the police” and “indoctrinate children through the teachings of critical race theory.” Dozens more spoke in support of the commission, saying it is the next step in a long journey toward making Charleston a more just place for everyone to live.

The first iteration of the commission, a temporary special commission, published a report in August 2021 that detailed 125 recommendations to make Charleston a more equitable city. Some of the more controversial suggestions included reparations and rethinking police budgets.

“I think it’s important to make sure we are keeping up with those recommendations, implementing them and seeing what opportunities there are for better government in the city,” councilman Stephen Bowden told the City Paper ahead of the meeting. “Thats what I think this commission comes down to — making this city fair for everyone, and who doesn’t agree with fairness?”

The 545-page report was ultimately rejected by Charleston City Council, as two separate votes in early fall blocked the city from formally “accepting” it or making the commission permanent. Individual committees have continued to use it as a model when crafting policy.

The proposed commission has since undergone changes, particularly to its name, which has driven renewed confusion and outcry from public officials and residents. However, leaders say the idea behind the name change was to give it a wider lens.

“The main reason for the name change was to capture to a certain degree the broader sense of what the permanent commission will be focused on,” Councilman Jason Sakran told the City Paper. “I am less concerned about the actual name and more concerned that a permanent commission be established, that it is representative of the community, and that the permanent commission remains focused on issues of race, equity and inclusion.” 

However, when it came time to vote, council members each took time to explain their final thoughts, with most of the opposition stemming from the same misunderstandings driving public outcry.

“The name has changed — I don’t know what exactly that means,” Councilwoman Caroline Parker said during the meeting. “Did we just change the name of the ordinance, but the report still stands? The fact that I don’t understand that, I guarantee you the public doesn’t understand. I think that’s a gaping hole. People need to understand.”

However, Councilman William Dudley Gregorie called the confusion into question, saying all the necessary information has been available to council well ahead of this vote.

“I don’t think, based upon what I’m hearing, some of our council members have really done their homework,” Gregorie said during the meeting. “We are not voting on 125 recommendations. This council did not accept the report and its recommendations … This is a starting point. So I am a little concerned with the inconsistency of the application of your rationale. It’s bothersome to put it best.”

Others sought a deferral of the measure, in light of the absent seat yet to be filled by a District 1 representative after the Jan. 11 election went to a runoff.

“We have an empty seat over there,” Councilman Mike Seekings said during the meeting. “That empty seat represents 12% of the population of the city of Charleston, and it’s going to be filled in two weeks. What’s the rush?”

The vote to defer ultimately failed, giving way for the vote on the measure’s second reading. Votes in favor came from Councilmembers Sakran, Robert Mitchell, Karl Brady, Gregorie, Keith Waring, Peter Shahid, Bowden and Mayor John Tecklenburg. Votes against the measure came from Councilmembers Kevin Shealy, Ross Appel, Seekings and Parker.