TESTIMONY ON THE RECONFIRMATION OF PETER SCHOTT
Delivered before the Committee on Government Operations
D.C. COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS
SEPTEMBER 23, 1999
Mrs. Patterson, Members of the Committee, and Fellow Citizens:
Good afternoon. My name is Bob Summersgill. I am Vice President for Political Affairs for the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, DC (GLAA), the oldest continuously active gay and lesbian rights organization in the country.
We welcome this opportunity to testify on behalf of the reconfirmation of Peter Schott as a member of the D.C. Commission on Human Rights. Peter has a long record of civic activism in the District of Columbia generally and in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood especially, dating back almost 30 years. He has already served one term with distinction on the Human Rights Commission, and has been elected Secretary by his colleagues in recognition of his hard work and dedication. Peter's work on behalf of human rights for all has been as extensive as it is broad. He has served as a staffer for a Congressional committee drafting critical human rights legislation and as a social worker in the South Bronx.
We are somewhat surprised by the news that Peter is now the only openly gay member of the Human Rights Commission. If our collective memory serves, this is one of the few times this has happened over the last 20 years. One of GLAA's first major victories was Mayor Walter Washington's appointment of Dr. Franklin E. Kameny to the Human Rights Commission in early 1975. Not only was Dr. Kameny the first openly gay member of the Commission on Human Rights, he was the first openly gay person appointed to any D.C. board or commission. Since those early days there have typically been between two and four openly gay or lesbian members (out of 15) serving on this crucial body. We hope Peter will be joined by others from our community in the near future.
We want to take this opportunity to call the Council's attention to an unintended result of legislation enacted last year that has hampered the operations of the Human Rights Commission. As you probably know, a panel of the Commission heard arguments in the spring of 1998 in connection with two complaints filed against the Boy Scouts of America because of their rigid exclusion of gay men. No decision has been handed down yet, to our increasing frustration. We have only recently learned that one of the Commissioners on this panel is powerless to act in any official capacity until she is reconfirmed by the Council.
In fact, only three Commissioners are currently able to act in an official capacity.
Up until this last year, this problem could not have arisen, because all sitting members of boards and commissions remained in office exercising full powers until their successors were confirmed. Because abuses admittedly resulted under these rules, the Council enacted remedial legislation. But as so often happens, curing one problem creates new ones. The Commission, reduced to only nine members through attrition, has had difficulty in establishing quorums (a minimum of eight Commissioners) and panels, and in allowing existing panels to execute their duties.
This failure to appoint and confirm Commissioners has taken the teeth out of the Commission. Nearly powerless to act, it carries little weight, and a threat to file a complaint of discrimination evokes little concern. Compounding this problem, as we have testified before the Council on many occasions, is the backlog of hundreds of cases in the Office of Human Rights, some dating back to the early years of this decade. Any complaint filed today would take at least two years before the Office could issue a finding of probable cause. The Commission has its own backlog of cases, which we hope will be alleviated somewhat by the recent addition of a second hearing examiner.
We urge the Council to revisit this matter so that sitting board and commission members will not be powerless while awaiting formal reconfirmation. Perhaps last year's legislation might be reworked to cover only board and commission members who are ineligible for reappointment. The D.C. government is paralyzed often enough as it is without passing laws that inadvertently add to the situation.
Thank you. I would be glad to answer any questions.