Manrique accuses Champaign of not protecting human rights

I am just disappointed because all I wanted to do was see the band play, said Cheri Manrique about the incident which occurred

“I am just disappointed because all I wanted to do was see the band play,” said Cheri Manrique about the incident which occurred

By Patrick Wade

Urbana resident Cheri Manrique, 40, sat down at a table in the recently smoke-free Memphis on Main on Feb. 17, ordered a Sierra Mist and watched one of her favorite bands play a show. The night would turn out to be a battle she took to the police, City Council and the Champaign Community Relations office.

The complaint she filed with the city was dismissed in mid-April, but the events of that night remain fresh in her mind.

Manrique said she noticed a man walking past her table, glaring at her.

“I was just sitting there minding my own business,” she said.

Manrique alleged the man, bar owner Tom Sellers, leaned over her table and started “grilling” her.

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Manrique is a member of the C-U Smokefree Alliance, an organization which recently lobbied to get the smoking ban passed in Urbana and then in Champaign. Manrique alleged that Sellers verbally harassed her because of her affiliation with the group and her part in getting the smoking ban passed.

After Sellers snapped a couple pictures of Manrique against her will, she became upset and left the bar.

Shortly after leaving, she called the police. No charges against Sellers were ever filed.

Sellers declined to comment, though he told the News-Gazette in February that Manrique’s account was a “total lie.” He did, however, admit to taking pictures of her, which he later deleted at the request of the police.

“The conversation, I don’t know,” said Kelly Sellers, Tom Sellers’ wife and co-owner of the bar. “It’s a bar, things happen.”

Kelly Sellers said she comforted a crying Manrique as the woman left the bar and told Manrique not to let the exchange between her and Tom Sellers make her feel unwelcome.

Kelly Sellers said she and her husband were shocked to find out that Manrique had taken her case to the Champaign City Council.

“We cannot believe that such a big deal has been made out of what was a relatively minor – I don’t even want to call it an incident,” she said.

After addressing the City Council, Manrique filed a complaint with the community relations office on the grounds that Tom Sellers had violated the Champaign human rights ordinance.

Part of the ordinance makes it unlawful for anyone to deny goods or services to anyone else, or to make them feel unwanted or unwelcome on the basis of their political affiliation.

Manrique employed Matt Varble, an Equal Employment Opportunities and Human Rights manager, to investigate and compile her complaint. Varble puts together complaints similar to Manrique’s for clients in many communities, including Iowa and Nebraska cities, and he has served as Champaign Human Relations Commissioner.

“Based upon an interpretation of the ordinance and the evidence that was present, clearly there was enough evidence to issue a just-cause finding,” Varble said. “But my experience has shown me that the city of Champaign does not enforce their human rights ordinance.”

He said that Champaign is “significantly behind” other communities, specifically Urbana, in enforcing its human rights ordinance.

Champaign Mayor Gerald Schweighart said he believes the city sufficiently enforces its human rights ordinances, but there are a lot of people “with an agenda” who do not believe so.

“We have a program with several options that evolved for the people,” Schweighart said. “If they aren’t happy with those options, they can go to court and get a court decision.”

In the last nine months, nine complaints have been filed with the community relations office. Of the nine, one case was found by the office to have “probable cause,” and one case still remains open, said Joan Walls, assistant to the city manager for community relations.

“Just because you file a complaint doesn’t mean the respondent is accused of doing anything wrong,” Walls said.

The burden of proof is on the resident who files the complaint, Walls said.

Manrique said she was informed by the community relations office that it would be a violation of Tom Sellers’ first amendment rights to uphold the complaint.

Kelly Sellers said that the woman from the community relations office who talked to her and Tom Sellers, however, was “extremely thorough.”

“If I had a complaint, I would be happy to have her investigating it for me,” Kelly Sellers said.

Manrique said that although her complaint was not upheld, she is ready to move on and put the event behind her.

“I just really was wanting to go in there to hear the band,” Manrique said. “That’s why I joined (C-U) Smokefree Alliance. I just wanted to be able to go out.”