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St. Joseph County Council approves agreement with South Bend in 6-3 vote

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South Bend's Human Rights Commission will now handle all human rights matters in St. Joseph County.

The county passed its first-ever Human Rights Ordinance in February. 35 complaints have been filed in the county since then.

Some of those complaints are being handled on a local level -- others at the state level.

County leaders say the goal is to make sure every person in St. Joseph County has a place to go if they feel discriminated against because of religion, gender identity, sex, or disability.

"It's not about beating up people, it's not about hurting people, it's about making this community a better community,” said Lonnie Douglas with the South Bend Human Rights Commission.

Under a new agreement, South Bend's Human Rights Commission will now handle all Human Rights Complaints filed in St. Joseph County for free, at least for now.

The goal is to settle cases close to home instead of at the state Capitol.

"As it was stated several times this evening, a lot of people who experience any type of discrimination do not have the financial means to hire an attorney or to travel to Indianapolis to try and resolve these issues. This will remedy all of those situations that they may face,” said St. Joseph County Council President Rafael Morton.

Douglas says most cases are easily solved at the local level.

"We don't strive to put anybody down or lift anybody up, we are a neutral agency. We're trying to give a win-win scenario rather than a win lose scenario,” Douglas said.

The ordinance also offers protections for the LGBTQ community -- something not recognized at the state level.

"It makes people feel as though they are actually recognized and valued as full citizens of the city and county now and that our county is a welcoming place,” said Karen Nemes with Pro Choice South Bend.

Council members voting against this worry the county will eventually have to pick up the tab. Others are just glad to see help on the way.

"To anyone that thinks discrimination doesn't still occur, I ask you to look a little deeper into our community and open your eyes to those you might be overlooking,” said Notre Dame Law Student Wesley Chamblee.

South Bend's Human Rights Commission will handle the county's cases for free until May.

At that time, the county will look at the case load to see if the Human Rights Commission needs more staff to handle cases.

It could cost up to $52,000 to add a new position.

Council members voting against this say they don't think the county's budget can afford that addition.

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Council President Rafael Morton says he'll be keeping track of how many cases are being handled to see if a position is absolutely necessary come May.

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