GLAA opposes submergence of Human Rights office



Delivered before the D.C. Council Committee on Labor & Human Rights

NOVEMBER 25, 1996

Mr. Chairman and Fellow Citizens:

Good morning. My name is Richard Rosendall. I am the President of the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington (GLAA), the nation's oldest continuously active gay and lesbian civil rights organization. With me this morning is another GLAA officer, Mr. Craig Howell, a veteran gay activist in his own right. We are pleased to be with you today.

GLAA has long been intensively involved with the interpretation and enforcement of what is now known as the D.C. Human Rights Law of 1977, one of the strongest and most comprehensive anti-discrimination statutes in the entire country. Regrettably, in recent years our warnings and perspectives have not been well heeded within the District government, which has done little to prevent the reemergence of a 3- to 4-year backlog of complaints of human rights violations. We are gratified that some improvements have been made in procedures for handling complaints, particularly the Council's recent enactment of legislation requiring mediation of complaints before they are investigated. We wish to commend this Committee and especially you, Mr. Chairman, for your initiative on this front.

GLAA has been arguing for some time now that the present Department of Human Rights & Minority Business Development should be broken up and that the Office of Human Rights should be reestablished as an independent, Cabinet-level agency, as it was prior to 1989. The combination of OHR with Minority Business Development proved to be disastrous during the Kelly Administration, which systematically cannibalized investigator positions away from OHR to transfer them to MBD. The Department has nearly always been headed by someone whose primary interest and background has been in minority business development, a situation which has contributed to the deemphasis on enforcement of our anti-discrimination laws.

GLAA is finding increasing support within the City Council for reestablishing OHR's independence and Cabinet-level status. We included a question on this subject in our 1996 questionnaire sent to all Council candidates. We are pleased to report we have received the unambiguous support of incumbents Harold Brazil, Jack Evans, and Eydie Whittington, plus incoming Council members Carol Schwartz and Sandy Allen. Mrs. Jarvis called for a new look at the current arrangement without endorsing either it or our proposed reform, while you, Mr. Chavous, were the only incumbent Council candidate who failed to return our questionnaire at all [at this point in the testimony, Mr. Chavous expressed his support for an independent Office of Human Rights]. (An appendix to our testimony provides the full replies written by the candidates.)

Earlier this year, we were heartened when the Barry Administration proposed a Transformation Plan for the D.C. government that included a breakup of the present unified Department. But while it was clear what was going to happen to the Minority Business Development section, it was not at all clear what would become of the Office of Human Rights. When we testified before this Committee several months ago, we specifically warned against burying OHR deep within the bowels of some other part of the District bureaucracy.

We were more than a little startled, then, to learn that PR11-899, "Director of the Department of Human Rights and Minority Business Development Gerald H. Draper Confirmation Resolution of 1996," had been introduced on October 30 at the request of the Mayor. We remain at a loss to understand why this Council is being asked to confirm anyone to head up a Department which will soon no longer exist. Mr. Draper has been serving as acting chief of the Department since the abrupt departure of Steven Jumper earlier this year, and we see no advantage -- not for him, not for the Department, not for the District government in any respect -- in making this appointment "permanent" under the circumstances.

But in the course of preparing for these hearings, we have come across a most disturbing document. Dated September 26, 1996, it is an unnumbered Reorganization Plan for the Public Management Business of the District government, presumably prepared by someone in the Barry Administration. Under this plan, we were dismayed to see, the Office of Human Rights would be merged into the Office of Personnel. Let us serve notice here and now that this Reorganization Plan is completely unacceptable. [Mr. Chavous said he was not aware of the referenced document, and requested that GLAA provide him with a copy; we did so after completing our testimony.]

The Office of Personnel would have 11 functions, 10 of which would be what you might expect, and the eleventh -- last and least -- would be Human Rights. OHR's chief would be no higher than a DS-14; the next highest-level staffers would be a DS-12 Paralegal, who would single-handedly constitute the Legal Advisory Division, and a DS-12 Mediation Coordinator. There would be four investigators in the Case Enforcement Division. OHR would have a total of 13 full-time equivalent employees lost within the Personnel Office's complement of over 200 employees.

This would not be a merger; this would be a submergence.

Perhaps there is not enough time today to explain everything we find wrong with the proposed Reorganization Plan. We should probably save that for another day -- or, better yet, never at all, if this plan can be withdrawn before it is ever formally submitted.

We are, of course, happy to hear of efforts to increase the OHR staffing to more adequate levels, and we are glad to hear Mr. Draper's testimony that he has detailed positions from MBD to OHR where appropriate. I wish to stress that our opposition today has nothing to do with Mr. Draper personally. We met with Mr. Draper shortly after he took over from Steven Jumper, and we have maintained cordial and productive communications ever since. In March he told us of his efforts to contract outside attorneys, and the commitment to giving priority to cases involving HIV/AIDS. Speaking of HIV/AIDS cases, as I don't have to tell you, Mr. Chairman, your own Ward 7 is one of those that are bearing the brunt of new sero-conversions, and given the discrimination that often accompanies AIDS -- which is often compounded by homophobia -- those who bring cases before OHR have the right at least to expect a prompt resolution of their case. So Mr. Draper deserves credit for growing in the position and making the most of his department's inadequate resources. We are looking forward to a decision in the Boy Scouts case, which we understand is due out shortly.

The political tide is moving towards reestablishing an independent, Cabinet-level Office of Human Rights. This Committee can signal its impatience with business-as-usual by sending back Mr. Draper's nomination as inappropriate for structural reasons, and by strongly endorsing OHR's independence. Again, we commend Mr. Draper for his efforts.

Thank you for your attention. We would be glad to answer any questions you may have.



Question for all City Council Candidates in the Questionnaire from the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington:

Q. Do you support the reestablishment of the Office of Human Rights as an independent, Cabinet-level agency whose Director has direct access to the Mayor?

Response of At-Large Winner Harold Brazil:

Yes. The D.C. Human Rights Law is the only law that protects the rights of gays and lesbians. It must be enforced--which can only be done with a full complement of investigators.

Response of At-Large Winner Carol Schwartz:

Yes. Budget restraints and mayoral indifference should not be allowed to curtail our commitment to human rights for all of our citizens.

Response of Ward 2 Winner Jack Evans:

Yes. The Office of Human Rights is one of the most important mechanisms this city has to ensure proper enforcement of the Human Rights Act of 1977. I have always been opposed to the department sharing personnel with the Office of Minority Business Development, which I believe is the sole reason the backlog of complaints is sitting at 3 to 4 years. I fully supported, on the record, the recent reform of the Human Rights Law that will allow the two sides to come together for mandatory mediation. I also supported the recent legislation that would have reorganized the department, making OHR a separate office. This however, is only the first step. I strongly support the independent, Cabinet-level position for the Office of Human Rights. Only then will the Human Rights Act of 1977 be fully enforced. For example, the current Department of Human Rights and Minority Business Affairs recently accepted the Boy Scouts of America claim that it was exempt from the Human Rights Act because it was a "private club." This ridiculous conclusion would not have been made if the office had been an independent Cabinet-level entity. I also fully support more investigators to reduce the backlog of anti-discrimination complaints, and give automatic priority to complaints involving allegations of HIV or AIDS related discrimination.

Response of Ward 4 Winner Charlene Drew Jarvis:

The District's Human Rights Law has been so effective in protecting human rights in the District and has indeed served as a model for jurisdictions across the nation. Therefore, I believe that the Office of Human Rights should be reconsidered in terms of its organizational structure, staffing, and policy. I support giving priority to complaints involving allegations of HIV- or AIDS-related discrimination.

Ward 7 Winner Kevin Chavous did not respond to the GLAA Questionnaire [but in response to GLAA's testimony on November 25, 1996, Mr. Chavous spoke from the dais, expressing his support for an independent Office of Human Rights.

Response of Ward 8 Winner Sandy Allen:

Yes. The Office of Human Rights should become independent immediately. The Director should be Cabinet level, with direct access to the Mayor. The new Department should receive the necessary resources to effectively enforce the Human Rights Bill of 1978.

Response of Ward 8 Incumbent Eydie Whittington to a similar question in GLAA's 1995 questionnaire for the Ward 8 Special Election:

I support the Office of Human Rights as a separate Agency within the District government. The focus of this important office is not related to the critical role of the Minority Development Office. Discrimination crosses more than just business lines. Separation of these two offices will require additional staffing.

Note: This issue was not raised in GLAA's questionnaires before 1995.

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