GLAA calls for more serious budget for Office of Human Rights
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D.C. Officials Support Independent Office of Human Rights 01/11/99

Testimony on Proposed FY 2000 Budget
for the Office of Human Rights

Committee on Government Operations
D.C. Council

APRIL 8, 1999

Councilmember Patterson, Members of the Committee, and Fellow Citizens:

My name is Craig Howell. I am President of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance (GLAA), the nationís oldest continuously active gay and lesbian rights organization, founded in April 1971. We are celebrating our 28th Anniversary with a reception on Thursday, April 22, at the Charles Sumner School, and we are delighted that you, Mrs. Patterson, along with Mr. Catania of this Committee and several other Council members have already purchased tickets. Iíd like to note that another member of your Committee, Carol Schwartz, whom I am glad to see this afternoon on the dais, will be receiving our Distinguished Service Award that evening — a long overdue award, I might add.

I am delighted that you have expanded the scope of this hearing to include not just the proposed FY 2000 budget for the Office of Human Rights (OHR) but also the proposal — of which GLAA has long been the prime instigator — to make OHR an independent agency once again. We compliment the members of this Committee for your February 5 letter to the Mayor calling for this reform, and we are delighted that the Administration is indeed headed in the same direction.

We have testified on the importance of this step for many years. Over the last several elections, we have made it an important factor in GLAAís ratings of candidates for Mayor and Council. My February 22 testimony before this Committee focused on the need to make OHR not only an independent agency but also a Cabinet-level agency whose chief has direct access to the Mayor on a regular basis — through Cabinet meetings, among other routine avenues of approach.

I will incorporate my February 22 testimony by reference and concentrate today on the budgetary ramifications of an independent, Cabinet-level OHR. It is not clear that the Mayorís proposed FY 2000 budget for OHR takes due account of its hopefully-imminent separation from the Office of Local Business Development. Additional funds at OHR are suggested only for two new intake workers. But when OHR becomes independent, it obviously should not be under the control of a mere Grade 14, as is presently the case.

The new Director should be at least at the Grade 17 level so that we can attract someone with a rich background in civil rights law management and enforcement. We believe OHR needs not just a good manager but also someone able and willing to serve as the conscience of the District government on all aspects of human rights law enforcement. It will take a high salary to entice someone with the necessary qualifications and prestige to head up OHR, but we believe it can be done.

We were delighted to learn that Mayor Williams has been able to bring in the former chief of the Illinois Department of Corrections, Mr. Odie Washington, as his nominee to direct our own Department of Corrections. We will need someone of comparable stature at OHR so that it can fulfill its lofty mission, and the FY 2000 budget must reflect that commitment to quality leadership. A Deputy Director, with high skills and experience in management (but perhaps not necessarily with a civil rights law background), might also be in order, and again the budget should allow for that additional position.

The FY 2000 budget should also reflect a serious plan to eliminate the massive case backlog at OHR which has plagued the agency for so long. Although the Mayorís budget calls for a backlog reduction from the current 700 cases to 580 cases by the end of FY 2000, it is not clear how such a reduction can be reasonably expected merely with the addition of two new intake workers. What is needed is a firm schedule for cutting that backlog to the point where the gap between a complaint filing and a finding on probable cause is reduced to 120 days, a gap which is standard in most jurisdictions today.

This will require a temporary bulge in staffing for mediators, investigators, hearing examiners, and what have you until this standard is reached, at which point normal staffing levels (i.e., whatever staff are needed to maintain the 120-day standard) can be resumed. Reaching this goal will presumably take more than one fiscal year. We need a credible schedule for getting there, and we need to start down that road now.

There is no way to reduce OHRís backlog on the cheap; itís a question of the Council and Mayor giving this goal the budgetary priority it deserves. The long-standing tolerance of the Districtís elected and bureaucratic leadership for an excessive backlog of discrimination complaints constitutes a scandal for a city that prides itself on its commitment to equal rights for all.

In establishing an independent, Cabinet-level Office of Human Rights, we favor giving maximum flexibility and responsibility to its new leadership. This may well involve empowering the new leaders to hire a staff wholly or substantially new, or it may involve contracting out certain functions now performed by D.C. government employees.

Binding new leaders down with existing staff they are not satisfied with or with bureaucratic busywork that distracts from performing the agencyís mission would be counterproductive. Letís keep our eyes on the prize — enforcing the D.C. Human Rights Law of 1977, one of the strongest and most comprehensive anti-discrimination laws in the country.

We recognize that most discrimination complaints that are filed, here as elsewhere, will be eventually either mediated to a settlement or else dismissed without a finding of probable cause. What needs to be done, therefore, is to focus staff and budgetary resources on those cases where probable cause does exist. The Councilís passage of legislation a few years ago for mandatory mediation before a case is investigated, rather than after an investigation, marked a useful step in this direction.

While there are relatively few complaints filed about alleged discrimination against lesbians and gay men in the District of Columbia, too many such cases tend to drag on forever. To cite the most notorious current example of this phenomenon, the complaints against the Boy Scouts of America for its blatant and admitted exclusion of gays were first filed in 1992, were not investigated until 1994, and are still before the Commission on Human Rights as we speak. Ending the custom of devoting excessive resources to easily-resolved or ill-founded complaints should certainly help to avoid such endless days in the future. The present long delays at OHR mean that when meritorious cases are investigated, too many key figures involved in the complaint have often moved away or their memories have faded, or complainants have become too discouraged to pursue their legitimate rights. Justice delayed is justice denied.

And just to remind you: No situation is so bad that it canít get any worse. The Corporation Counselís office is currently arguing — in the wrongful death action filed by Margie Hunter, mother of the late transgendered Tyra Hunter — that anyone with a discrimination complaint against the D.C. government must file a complaint with OHR and has no right to file a lawsuit until that administrative route has been exhausted. If upheld, this absurd misreading of the law would only exacerbate OHRís backlog. I doubt if the Administrationís proposed FY 2000 budget for OHR makes allowance for this contingency, which we fervently hope will never come to pass.

In conclusion, we at GLAA are gratified that a consensus has formed in favor of OHRís renewed independence. It now remains to give the newly-liberated Office of Human Rights the budget it deserves.

Thank you. I would be glad to answer any questions you may have.

[Mr. Howell added his perspectives on the discussion between Councilmember Patterson and Ms. Jacquelyn Flowers, Acting Director of the Department of Human Rights and Local Business Development, on how best to separate OHR. Ms. Flowers said she expects to submit a comprehensive Reorganization Plan to the Council for its up-or-down approval before October 1 of this year; the proposal will be drafted by a private law firm on a pro bono basis, as the Department does not have such capability on its own. Mrs. Patterson said it might be better to achieve the same goal via legislation abolishing the current Department and creating two new agencies in its place. Mr. Howell testified in favor of the legislative option, both because of its greater flexibility and because the Reorganization Plan from the Administration would not be ready in time to make OHR functionally independent by the start of FY 2000.

[Mr. Howell was asked about the Departmentís intention to contract out its entire mediation and investigative functions to firms in the private sector. Mr. Howell said that this certainly looked like the proper direction to go, especially now that OHR is now apparently down to its last solitary investigator. Recent attempts by OHR to hire new investigators and mediators have failed because of what Ms. Flowers termed ďthe uncompetitive salary rangesĒ offered to potential applicants.]

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