Howell testifies on Office of Human Rights

TESTIMONY ON PROPOSED FY 1999 BUDGET
FOR THE OFFICE OF HUMAN RIGHTS

D.C. Council Committee on Government Operations
MARCH 4, 1998

Mrs. Patterson, members of the committee, and fellow citizens:

Good morning. My name is Craig Howell. I am a former President and the current Secretary of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington (GLAA), the oldest continuously active gay and lesbian civil rights organization in the country. Thank you for this opportunity to testify before you today.

Before moving into a discussion of the proposed FY 1999 budget for the Office of Human Rights, I want to take this opportunity to acquaint this committee with a few crucial recent developments concerning the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and its unconscionable policy of discrimination against gay Scouts — a policy which is even now being challenged before the District’s Commission on Human Rights.

Just two days ago, on March 2, the New Jersey state appeals court ruled that the Boy Scouts of America and its local councils are “places of accommodation” that “emphasize open membership” and therefore must adhere to the state’s anti-discrimination law, which includes a ban on sexual orientation discrimination.

In the words of this court: “There is absolutely no evidence before us, empirical or otherwise, supporting a conclusion that a gay scoutmaster, solely because he is homosexual, does not possess the strength of character necessary to properly care for, or to impart BSA humanitarian ideals to the young boys in his charge.”

In another case, the city of Chicago settled a lawsuit in a federal court one month ago by ending all city government sponsorship for scouting programs as long as BSA continues to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and religious belief. Unlike the New Jersey case, where both the facts and the law closely parallel the cases being brought here in D.C., the Chicago case revolved around official government sponsorship of BSA programs, and also challenged the Boy Scouts’ exclusion of atheists and agnostics. But what is especially heartening about the Chicago case is that the BSA national leadership is finally beginning to realize that its arbitrary exclusion policies are legally vulnerable. This was illustrated by the BSA’s recent decision to create a new division of Explorer scouting that will allow a local option to posts to accept scouts without requiring a religious loyalty oath.

Although even this local option does not do everything it should, it may indicate that the BSA’s top leadership — long dominated by elements in close alliance with the New Religious Right — will eventually yield to civil rights principles if the courts and other government agencies will have the courage to hold their feet to the fire. In this connection, we heartily commend our Office of Human Rights for ruling (on the well-considered advice from the Corporation Counsel’s office) that the local Boy Scouts Council is covered by the Human Rights Law and can not ban gay participation. Just parenthetically, however, we are at a loss to understand why the Commission on Human Rights has had to devote so much time to hearing these cases when (unlike most other cases coming before it) the facts are not in dispute.

Turning now to the proposed FY 1999 budget for OHR, we were quite disheartened to learn that the Financial Control Board has arbitrarily vetoed an increase from 13 to 16 FTE’s for FY 1998, a modest and prudent initiative that originated with this committee — for which we thank you, Mrs. Patterson — and that had won the concurrence of the Mayor’s Office and the Chief Financial Officer. But we are pleased that, undeterred by the Control Board’s all-too-typical folly, the Mayor’s Office has proposed reinstating those additional positions in the FY 1999 budget. Obviously we approve, but even more fundamental rethinking may be in order.

Mr. Draper has stated that his goal is to ensure that most discrimination complaints will be processed within 18 months. In addition, he hopes to reduce the pending case backlog from its current level of about 700 cases to what he terms “a respectable level, about 575-600 cases.” This would indeed be a tremendous improvement over current conditions, but we have several observations.

First, it is not clear to us that even adding the additional positions envisioned by Mr. Draper will be sufficient to meet his goal — especially since there is no provision for hiring any more investigators in FY 99.

Second, we see nothing “respectable” in accepting a case backlog of 575-600 cases. Since currently old cases are being closed at about the same rate as new cases are being opened — i.e., about 300 cases a year — we are talking about accepting at least a 2-year backlog as “respectable.” It is no such thing.

It is very discouraging when I have to tell gay men and lesbians who come to GLAA to complain about being victimized by clearly unlawful discrimination that OHR will take years to resolve their complaint. Because most of these people can not afford the expense of taking their cases to court, many just give up altogether, suffering deep economic and psychological loss and allowing bigotry to triumph unmolested. GLAA continues to insist that the elected officials of this city should finally stop giving little more than lip service to the cause of equal rights and to put our tax money where their mouth is. The unwise legislation enacted last year that sets a full year as the standard for resolving complaints should be ignored. Instead, the original mandate of the D.C. Human Rights Law of 1977 — that anti-discrimination complaints should be resolved within 120 days — should be reinstated as our goal, and budgeting should proceed accordingly. This may mean a temporary bulge in funding to hire temporary workers with the idea of getting down to this 120-day standard as the ideal, and then leaving enough full-time positions to keep that standard in place.

If we can’t do all this in FY 1999, at least let’s establish a systematic longer-term plan where we can agree to eliminate the excessive case backlog by some definite date in the future. And if the Control Board vetoes all this, remember that they, unlike diamonds, are not forever; we need a plan in place for whenever we get either a smarter Control Board or a return to home rule. (We realize that the “smartest” Control Board would be no Control Board at all.)

Mr. Draper observed in his testimony that just 10 years ago, there were 72 FTEs in the Office of Human Rights. The deterioration from that point to the present anemic staffing left to OHR is largely the responsibility of our own elected officials. During the Kelly Administration, OHR was systematically cannibalized to beef up staffing for the Minority Business Development Commission. Since then, OHR has been further hit by RIFs, mindless across-the-board budget cuts, and the priortization by default that results from an over-reliance on attrition to cut the size of the government work force. It is time for our elected officials to accept the burdens of the offices they sought so assiduously. They need to be making the tough choices on spending and program priorities that they have been dodging so long, and they need at long last to put improved service delivery for all District residents ahead of their own immediate, narrow political interests.

Beyond the various budget issues, we at GLAA reiterate our long-standing position that the Office of Human Rights needs to be liberated from what is now known as the Local Business Development Commission; the recent renaming of this agency merely emphasizes how illogical it is to link this body with the Office of Human Rights. OHR needs to be reestablished as a Cabinet-level agency. It is simply unacceptable that the director of the District’s chief civil rights agency should be nothing more than an efficient administrator, no higher than a Grade 13 (as is now the case) or even a 14 (as proposed in the FY 1999 budget). Instead, we believe that OHR should be headed by a lawyer who is thoroughly versed in the subtleties of contemporary civil rights law who has both the knowledge and courage to serve as the conscience of the Administration. Too often in recent years, such a voice of conscience has been keenly missed within the District government.

In this connection, Mrs. Patterson, I was very much surprised to hear your conversation a few moments ago with Mr. Draper about why OHR no longer has a Grade 14 position for a permanent Associate Director for Human Rights as head of OHR. Mr. Draper brought out the fact that this unhappy situation originated after the last Associate Director stepped down in 1996. Before that position could be filled, it was, for all intents and purposes, stolen by the District’s Deputy City Administrator and arbitrarily assigned to another agency. The man responsible for this bureaucratic chicanery was none other than David Watts — now the head of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. DCRA has become quite obnoxious to our community in the last two years or so by waging a series of moralistic crusades against various kinds of gay businesses. This little incident about Mr. Watts’ past may illustrate why we continue to suffer at the bumbling hands of DCRA. Thank you, Mrs. Patterson and Mr. Draper.

Before concluding, I want to raise an issue that came up during last week’s hearings by the Judiciary Committee on legislation to reestablish a system for civilian review of complaints about alleged incidents of police misconduct. A bill introduced by Mrs. Allen provided that the new agency would have authority to hear complaints about police conduct allegedly committed because of illegally discriminatory motives; Mr. Evans’ bill has no such provision. We tend to think that perhaps both agencies should be able to receive such complaints, and that the choice of venue should be left to the complainant. But we want to hear input both from this committee and from OHR before reaching our own decision. Since the record for the Judiciary Committee’s hearings closes on March 13, we need to hear from you as quickly as possible.

[Memo for the record: Following today’s hearings, I spoke informally with Ms. Winona Lake, the acting head of OHR, about this matter. She said that some people have indeed attempted to bring such complaints to OHR. However, she believes her agency has no jurisdiction in such cases and therefore routinely refers complainants to the Metropolitan Police Department. Presuming this information is indeed the official position of Mr. Draper’s Department, it would convince us that any legislation for a new civilian complaint review system must include explicit language to authorize the new CCRB to accept complaints of allegedly discriminatory misconduct by police officers.] Thank you for your attention.

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